Identifying Cancer Clusters

Is the number of cancer diagnoses creeping up where you live? Is it just by chance? Or could an environmental toxin be lurking in the water, soil or air? Find out what you need to know about getting a cancer cluster investigated.

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One of the first questions people faced with a cancer diagnosis ask is, "What caused this?", especially when it strikes young children who don't typically get cancer. Sometimes you learn why; a DNA defect could foreshadow certain types of colon cancer for instance, or an unhealthy behavior such as smoking jacked up your risk. But it could also be something lurking in the environment, a carcinogen that has entered the water supply, soil or the air where we live, work, play or attend school.

Government agencies track the number and type of cancers that typically occur, so they have a pretty good idea of what to expect in a given group of people every year. So when the number of cancer diagnoses in a community creeps up inexplicably, a red flag goes up and a cancer cluster is suspected.

But before the government gets wind of this suspicion, it has to be reported. And that is usually the result of a hunch: A mother learns her son has a rare brain tumor and a few miles cross-town she hears there is another case; or coworkers at a plant are struck down with the same rare cancer.

While an up in cancer cases could be a random occurrence, it may also be caused by an outside source. Getting to that source takes a perceptive eye, coupled with the tenacity of a group of people, the expertise of medical professionals, and the willingness of government agencies to intervene and investigate it fully.

Famous Cancer Clusters

One notable cancer cluster was discovered in the early 1900s when a group of watch-dial workers began to mysteriously die from cancer. The workers, who would lick the tips of their brushes so that they could more easily apply the radium paint that illuminated the watch hands, were unknowingly exposing themselves to radioactive material. The radium poisoning eventually caused a host of complications including, cancer of the jawbone.

Another well-known cancer cluster was discovered in Woburn, MA when a clergyman noticed that over a 15-year period an unusual amount of kids in his town were getting childhood leukemia. The investigation and court cases became a bestselling book and movie, A Civil Action .

And most of us know about the cancer cluster breakthrough that came from the suspicions of Erin Brockovich, the feisty Californian whose unrelenting investigation lead to the source of chromium poisoning her town's drinking water.

These, and other noteworthy investigations, have saved the lives of future generations. The source was identified, the contributors were made accountable, and the toxins were removed from the environment.

Sadly though, 75% of investigations come up empty-handed or are dismissed. Still, finding the source of a cancer cluster is important because it can not only save lives but also add to a growing list of environmental toxins that humans should avoid.