All this week we're bringing you a special series on cancer and the environment.
Cancer is a scary enough word, and cancer cluster can sound even scarier. That term describes a place where more people have cancer than you’d expect to find in the rest of the population. But finding out if a cluster really exists and then getting something done about it is hard, really hard.
Claire Schlaff doesn’t know if there’s a cancer cluster in her small resort community around White Lake, Michigan on the western side of the state. She says she just wanted to know more about what might have caused her son, Doug to get cancer and die three years ago.
“He went to two major medical facilities and was even in a clinical trial. They were focused on treatment. They weren’t about doing research into what causes Ewing’s Sarcoma.”
Claire’s daughter-in-law Polly was also looking for answers to what had caused the disease. She’s Doug’s widow and the mother of his three boys.
“He was diagnosed when he was 33 and he passed away when he was 35. We were high school sweethearts. He was a high school counselor; he was a high school basketball coach. He was an athlete.”
This week, we’re bringing you a series of stories on cancer and the environment.
Today, in the third part of our series, we’re going to St. Clair County.
The state of Michigan has confirmed a cancer cluster in the county. 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.
Health officials ran a statistical analysis and found there are more cases of Wilms tumor in kids in the county than you’d expect to find.
Danielle Williams’ (no relation to Rebecca Williams) daughter Erika was the first to be diagnosed. She was seven years old.
“My daughter was playing soccer and she came home that night and we noticed she had a protruding lump on the side of her belly, and to the touch it was hot.”
An ultrasound revealed what looked like a six inch mass in Erika’s kidney. Erika had surgery to remove her left kidney ... and that’s when the doctors discovered the tumor was the size of a football.
“In the hospital, she quit... she didn’t speak. She didn’t really know what was going on but she knew it was serious. Because they’re so little they don’t know the serious(ness) of it, but her seeing me so broken, she just sat there in silence all the time and didn’t talk.”
As part of our week-long series on cancer and the environment... we’re talking about going to court. Some people turn to the courts because they think pollution has made them sick, and they think they know who’s to blame. But, the courts aren’t always the best place to turn with these kinds of cases.
Kathy Henry lived along a river in the Midland area that Dow Chemical contaminated with a chemical called dioxin. The EPA says dioxin is likely to cause cancer. Henry’s property had high levels of the chemical. So she and a group of other people sued Dow. She was more than a little nervous that first day in court.
“I was a little overwhelmed, just really interested in watching the proceedings.”
But what does she feel like now?
”We’re just frustrated to the point where I have no respect for the process anymore.”
Henry’s frustrated because her case started nine years ago. Their case isn’t over yet, but it’s not looking good for them.
“We just wanted the courts to force Dow to basically buy our house so we could leave. And we couldn’t afford to just pack up and leave on our own.”
Henry’s group has not been successful in getting Dow to pay for any moves, or for medical monitoring to look out for future health problems.
There have been breakthroughs in treating cancer, but what about preventing it in the first place?
In 1970, the nation launched a “War on Cancer.” The goal was to cure it in 25 years, but back then, researchers didn’t know what we know now. That cancer is a disease of our genes… “a distorted version of our normal selves” as Nobel Prize winner Dr. Harold Varmus said.
In the final part of our week-long series, I visited some researchers at the University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center who are looking deep into our cells for answers.
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.