A roundup of stories in our "Cancer & Environment" series

Mar 9, 2012

This past week, Michigan Radio's The Environment Report brought us a special series looking at the connections between cancer and the environment.

Producers looked at our current understanding of how the chemicals in our lives affect us, how neighbors in the White Lake area in West Michigan are mapping cancers, how some mothers in St. Clair County are asking why their children developed a rare type of cancer, how fights over potential carcinogens play out in court, and what scientists are doing to unlock the secrets of our genes.

They also collected stories of courage and warmth from those people affected by cancer around Michigan and posted their stories on a Tumblr page.

And finally, people were invited to ask questions in a "live-chat" with a noted expert on how some toxic substances might affect our health, Dr. Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas.

Here is a roundup of the stories produced for this series:

Our murky understanding of cancer and chemicals

In the opening installment of our Cancer and the Environment series, Mark Brush offers a primer on what we know about the way our surroundings influence cancer in our cells (a bit) - and what we don't yet understand (a whole lot).

Brush speaks with a young woman who has been living with cancer since her late 20s and uncovers some disagreement amongst experts over how much of a role environmental factors play in overall cancer rates.

Brush reports that while know factors like genetics, smoking, diet and exercise play a part in cancer, many people in the field believe chemical substances found in the environment are drastically under-tested and under-regulated.

Mapping cancer cases in West Michigan

In part two of our series, Sarah Alvarez takes a look at the idea of cancer clusters---a place where more people have cancer than you’d expect to find in the rest of the population---and the serious difficulties in locating those clusters.

Alvarez takes us to a small town in western Michigan where the mother and the wife of a man who died of cancer  are working to document cancer cases in their community.

Alvarez reports that often this sort of data is just not collected by the government and it requires a lot of self-initiative from community members to make health officials aware of possible cancer clusters.

A cancer cluster of Michigan children

As follow-up to Sarah Alvarez's piece, Rebecca Williams examines a confirmed cancer cluster in Michigan.

Williams takes us to St. Clair County where, since 2007, eight young children – and a possible ninth – have been diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer called Wilms' tumor.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 550 children a year are diagnosed with Wilms' tumor nationally.

But according to Williams, even with a confirmed cluster, finding and addressing a cause is quite difficult.

Suing over cancer

When somebody believes that something in their surroundings is making them sick, taking legal action seems like a pretty reasonable step for them to take, but as Sarah Alvarez reports, environmental pollution cases turn out to be really tough to win.

Alvarez tells the story of one such case involving a Dow Chemical plant in Michigan and nearby residents whose lawsuit has gone on for a frustrating nine years.

Alvarez looks at some of the reasons why these cases are often less-than-effective for plaintiffs and examines some new models being considered to address liability for environmental pollution.

Unlocking our cells' secrets

In the final part of our week-long series, Mark Brush visits some researchers at the University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center who are looking deep into our cells for answers.

According to Brush, unlike older models where the focus was on finding a cure for cancer, a lot of research nowadays focuses on preventing cancer before it starts.

Brush says that cancer prevention  is still a huge field with many related pieces and can include cell biology research, like what's going on at U of M, developing vaccines, or it can mean educating the public about the things researchers know can reduce cancer risk – things like maintaining a healthy weight, reducing emotional stress, eating the right foods, not smoking or drinking, reducing sun exposure, and exercising.

-John Klein Wilson, Michigan Radio Newsroom