Cancer & Environment: Searching for Answers

This week, the Environment Report is taking an in-depth look at the connections between cancer and the environment.

When somebody gets cancer, one of the first questions is usually "why?"

Does this kind of cancer run in my family?

Was it something in the water, or in the air around me?

Did I get exposed to something?

What would you do, or where would you go to answer these questions?

We'll explore how much we really know about the connections between cancer and the chemicals in our environment.

We'll also meet both regular people and scientists trying to figure out if certain towns around Michigan are struggling with more cancer cases than other places because of current or past pollution.

You'll hear about whether or not turning to the courts makes sense when it seems a company might to be blame for putting people at risk of cancer or other illnesses.

Finally, we'll look at where we go from here. What do researchers know, and where are they looking next?

An ailing robin fledging in Teri Kniffen's yard in St. Louis, Michigan in June of 2013.  Some of the highest levels of DDT ever recorded in bird livers and brains were found in this neighborhood.
Teri Kniffen

All this week we're bringing you stories about the chemical company responsible for the PBB tragedy in Michigan. Michigan Chemical accidentally contaminated the state’s food supply in the 1970s, but the legacy of that company is still very much with us today.

Michigan Chemical – which later became Velsicol Chemical – made more than just PBB, and it left these toxic chemicals behind in St. Louis, Michigan.

One woman insists something is wrong with the birds

wikimedia commons

The number of younger men diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer has been rising sharply over the past two decades.

Prostate cancer has generally been associated with aging. But researchers at the University of Michigan say it's time to rethink that.

Dr. Kathleen Cooney is professor of internal medicine and urology at the university. She said there could also be a genetic factor that makes some men more susceptible to the disease earlier in their lives.

Amy Temple / The Center for Public Integrity

Arsenic is nearly synonymous with poison. But most people don't realize that they consume small amounts of it in the food they eat and the water they drink.

Recent research suggests even small levels of arsenic may be harmful. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been prepared to say since 2008 that arsenic is 17 times more toxic as a carcinogen than the agency now reports.

Women are especially vulnerable. EPA scientists have concluded that if 100,000 women consumed the legal limit of arsenic each day, 730 of them eventually would get lung or bladder cancer.

The EPA, however, hasn’t been able to make its findings official, an action that could trigger stricter drinking water standards. The roadblock: a single paragraph inserted into a committee report by a member of Congress, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found.

The broad view of the giant colon.
American Cancer Society

That one got our attention too.

The press release from the University of Michigan News Service starts with "here's your chance:"

The University of Michigan Health System will partner with the American Cancer Society to bring a 32-foot-long, 14-foot-high giant replica of the colon to Briarwood Mall, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. March 22, to raise awareness  of colorectal cancer.

What does such a thing look like? We asked for a few photos.

U of M physicians will also be on hand to answer any questions visitors might have.

Being handed a diagnosis of cancer is a life-shattering experience.

Every single patient has his or her story of coping with cancer, fighting cancer, and there is infinite wisdom in each of these stories.

Alex Kip has one of those stories. He was 22 when he was diagnosed with non hodgkins lymphoma.

The U of M musical theatre graduate has turned his cancer battle into a play, "My Other Voice" is now running at the Arthur Miller Theatre through this weekend.

Alex Kip joined us in the studio.

Listen to the audio above.

NCI

Michigan's cancer profile can cause unease, especially if you live or work near polluted waterways or land. Federal health data show that where you live might determine whether you will get cancer and what type.

Journalist Norm Sinclair looked at the "cancer hot spots" in Michigan for the August issue of DBusiness magazine, and he joined us today from Oakland County.

Detroit and its downriver suburbs have some serious pollution problems.

And according to a new Sierra Club report, the greatest effects fall on poor, largely non-white communities.

The report deals with environmental justice in southeast Michigan—the idea that poor, minority communities tend to shoulder the burdens of pollution.

It details toxic emissions from six major sources in and around Detroit—five of which are clustered in the downriver area.

John Klein Wilson / Michigan Radio

Yesterday, we hosted a live web chat that coincided with the airing of our one-hour documentary, "Living with Cancer."

People who logged on could ask our cancer experts, Dr. Anthony Shields and Dr. Michael Harbut from the Karmanos Cancer Institute, their questions about cancer and the environment. Some weighed in via Facebook and our blog, as well.

Here is a recap of the chat:

Michigan Radio

Welcome to our live Web chat with the producers of our documentary, Living with Cancer: Rebecca Williams, Meg Cramer and Sarah Alvarez.

The show is airing now on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM/91.1 FM/104.1 FM, or you can listen to the live stream above.

John Klein Wilson / Michigan Radio

It’s something we don’t like to talk about, but cancer is all around us. It would be hard to find someone who hasn’t been touched by cancer - not just someone you know - but someone you love.

In Living with Cancer, a special one-hour documentary from Michigan Radio, we'll explore how much we really know about the connections between cancer and the chemicals in our environment.

We’ll meet both regular people and scientists trying to figure out if certain towns around Michigan are struggling with more cancer cases than other places because of current or past pollution. You'll hear about whether or not turning to the courts makes sense when it seems a company might to be blame for putting people at risk of cancer or other illnesses. Finally, we'll look at where we go from here. What do researchers know, and where are they looking next?

Listen live at 3pm on air on Michigan Radio or you can listen to the show at the audio links below:

Michigan DEQ

The cleanup of one of Michigan's environmental "Areas of Concern" (AOC)  is now a step closer to being finished.

White Lake in Muskegon County is one of 43 sites around the Great Lakes region (14 are in Michigan) that have been designated for special cleanup because of heavy pollution that impairs their use.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says White Lake has a history of contamination "with industrial discharges from leather processing and chemical companies."

Last week, we brought you a series on cancer and the environment.

I put together this visual representation of some of the statistics we learned about cancer and our lives.

John Klein Wilson / Michigan Radio

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:

Welcome to our live Web chat with the producers of our week-long series "Cancer & Environment: Searching for Answers."

Dr. Arnold Schecter will also join us today at 12:30 p.m.

He's a professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at the University of Texas Dallas, and he's been studying the health effects of toxic substances for over 30 years.

If you have any questions or comments for the producers, simply type them into the chat box below. We will try to address them in the order they are submitted. Or you can just sit back and watch the discussion.

Thanks for participating!

As part of the Environment Report's week-long series, Cancer and Environment: Searching for Answers, we'll be highlighting some powerful stories of hope and loss in the words of those touched by cancer in Michigan. You can read more Michigan cancer stories here. How has cancer affected your life?

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

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.

As part of the Environment Report's week-long series, Cancer and Environment: Searching for Answers, we'll be highlighting some powerful stories of hope and loss in the words of those touched by cancer in Michigan. You can read more Michigan cancer stories here.  How has cancer affected your life?

Photo by Kathy Henry

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.

All week long The Environment Report has been airing stories exploring the link between cancer and the environment we live in.

The series, Cancer and Environment: Searching for Answers, will run through this Friday.

We felt the series would not be complete without hearing from the people who are affected by it.

So through the Public Insight Network, we asked you to share your experiences.

So far, we've received dozens of entries from all over Michigan. Some tragic, some hopeful - each one represents a different, and personal perspective on the experience of having or knowing someone with cancer.

Here are some exerts from the blog:

"I have lost my partner. I am heartbroken that our young daughter has lost her dad and will miss out on all that his amazing heart and mind offered to her." - Amy Lobsiger

"My husband Joe died of cancer on his favorite holiday, July 4, in 2010. He was 39, I was 33. We had the gift of cancer. Cancer isn’t something that most people would consider a gift, but really, we did." -Amy Scott

"It has made me a different person because I don’t wait to enjoy things until I retire. I live now. I save for retirement just in case, but I don’t want to have any regrets no matter how long I live!" -Jill Schultz

You can see photos and read those stories on our Michigan Cancer Stories Tumblr page.

And we'll continue to collect these stories.

How has cancer impacted your life? Tell us here.

As part of the Environment Report's week-long series, Cancer and Environment: Searching for Answers, we'll be highlighting some powerful stories of hope and loss in the words of those touched by cancer in Michigan. You can read more Michigan cancer stories here. How has cancer affected your life?

Photo courtesy of Danielle Williams

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 the Environment Report's week-long series, Cancer and Environment: Searching for Answers, we'll be highlighting some powerful stories of hope and loss in the words of those touched by cancer in Michigan. You can read more Michigan cancer stories here. How has cancer affected your life? Tell us your story.

In July, the idea of Chloe’s hair loss was difficult—difficult for Chloe, difficult for Kip and me.

The other day, the kids were at my parents’. My daughter Martha was brushing her long hair and working on some pretty tough tangles. “I HATE my hair,” she exclaimed, in a dramatic fashion.

Chloe looked up at her, smiled confidently and said, “I LOVE my hair.”

It felt like she had come full circle.

Photo by Sarah Alvarez/Michigan Radio

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.”

As part of the Environment Report's week-long series, Cancer and Environment: Searching for Answers, we'll be highlighting some powerful stories of hope and loss in the words of those touched by cancer in Michigan. You can read more Michigan cancer stories here. How has cancer affected your life? Tell us your story.

My wife battled serious recurrent spinal meningiomas for over 30 years (she died in 2008). She lived with intense unrelenting pain that worsened as she became progressively more handicapped.

Her disease took an enormous toll on me emotionally. I felt helpless against this devastating incurable disease and hated seeing her suffer so badly. I knew the disease would kill her, but I couldn’t stop this slow-motion disaster.

This is the last, best photo I have of us together. We’re at our youngest son’s July 2007 wedding in eastern Germany.  Remarkably we both were able to smile. 

courtesy of Corinna Borden

According to the latest numbers from the National Cancer Institute, roughly 41 percent of us will be diagnosed with some type of cancer in our lifetimes.

But “cancer” is not just one type of disease.

There are more than 100 different kinds with different personalities and causes. And the causes are not all that well understood.

This week, we’re taking a closer look at cancer and environmental pollutants.

It’s a subject researchers are trying to learn more about, but the picture of how the chemicals in our everyday lives interact with our bodies’ cells is far from clear.

White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce

Residents of White Lake gathered this morning to dispute their inclusion on a list of cancer clusters in Michigan. The list was compiled by the National Disease Cluster Coalition.  

Claire Schlaff  started the White Lake Cancer Mapping Project after her son passed away from a rare cancer. She says the National Disease Cluster Coalition misinterpreted information from the White Lake Cancer Mapping project:

“The materials they put out kind of made it look like all of these were confirmed clusters, including ours, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Although we’re looking into it, nothing has been confirmed.”

Schlaff said the White Lake Mapping Project data will not be ready for analysis for at least a year. She says the project was meant to find a link between cancer and the environment:

“I’m not looking for a yes or no answer about whether there’s a cancer cluster here. What I am trying to do and what our group is trying to do is to learn more about the connection between the environment and cancers.”

White Lake was put on a list of toxic hotspots in the mid-1980s because of pollution from the Occidental Chemical Company.