Tuesday, April 08, 2008

the building

There is a group of seven women with whom I meet regularly. We are working on a writing project together. Each of us is smart, funny, strong, perceptive and unbelievably supportive of the others in the group.

We share a common set of values. We are all feminists, trade unionists and committed to working for social change. We have all had breast cancer. And we all worked in the same building.

Of the seven of us, four were under the age of forty-five when we were first diagnosed. Three of us were under forty. Several of us worked in the same corner of that building, which housed, at most, one hundred people.

Two of us (two of the youngest at the time of diagnosis) have had recurrences.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the following to say about cancer clusters:

"A cancer cluster is defined as a greater than expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people, in a geographic area, or over a period of time...an apparent cancer cluster is more likely to be genuine if the cases consist of one type of cancer, a rare type of cancer, or a type of cancer that is not usually found in an age group."

Do I believe that the fact that I worked in that building is the reason I have cancer? I know it's more complicated than that. I know that environmental toxins can accumulate over a life time. And I know that a whole series of factors (including bad luck) resulted in the initial mutation of cells and the eventual growth of cancerous tumours in my breast, lymph nodes and liver.

There is however, no breast cancer in my family (and both my parents come from very large families). And my surgeon said that, given the aggressiveness displayed by the cancer in my breast and lymph nodes (my breast tumour doubled in size in the month between diagnosis and surgery), that initial mutation likely began at the time that I would have been working in the building.

Do I wish that the possibility of a cancer cluster had been seriously investigated?

Damn right, I do.

In December, 2006, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation closed it's Brisbane headquarters, after ten women who worked there were diagnosed with breast cancer over a span of eleven years. I know that proving a cancer cluster is inordinately difficult. However, raising questions about the possibility should not be met with hostility.

Should we have pushed harder for answers? Would it have made a difference if we had?No one wants to believe that their workplace made them sick. Especially when we felt so privileged to work the long hours we did on behalf of those the organization represents. And the questions we did ask were rebuffed quickly and emphatically.

Last year, the building was sold and is in the process of being gutted by the new owners. The organization built a new, much healthier building. Four of the women in my group still work there (I left the organization for another in late 2002).

Our questions about the building will never be answered.


Jeanne said...

Laurie--I haven't visited your blog for awhile (apologies), as I've been traveling and then catching up.

This is an excellent post, although of course it makes me so angry, and I'm linking to it from my blog.

Does the gang of seven have a name yet? And what are you writing, if it's not a secret?


laurie said...

We usually just call ourselves the Seven Sisters (stemming from the fact that we all worked in the labour movement but if fits, too with how we feel about each other).

We are writing a book together, with each of us contributing an essay, at least. We are not super-product oriented and not sure what will happen when we are done but the process is lovely. The others all write so beautifully, it blows me away!

Anonymous said...

So are you the only people who got cancer while working there? How many other people came down with cancer while working in that building, how many per year, and what kinds of cancer? How many people have been diagnosed with cancer since leaving employment in this building, and how soon afterward? Does anybody have these statistics? Is it too late to get them? Would it even be possible to get them?

In America, this information, if even available, would be closely guarded for fear of lawsuit(s). But I just want to know stuff like this, don't you?

When we moved to Massachusetts, we had one week to find a place to live (complicated story; another time). We landed on a main artery next to an Air Force base/civil airport and a defense contractor, and every morning the air smelled like diesel and benzene. Turns out this town had also been polluted by BASF a few years prior, and there had been a class action suit with a settlement. And yes, this town was considered a cancer cluster just because of the sheer number of new cancer cases reported every year among residents. Every year in Boston magazine, it gets reported as having some of the finest public schools and one of the highest cancer counts in the whole state. One of my friends who lived literally just over the fence from the Air Force base for years, brought up her kids there and everything, came down with breast cancer within six months of her daughter contracting lymphoma. And that's the town where I was living when I had my first recurrence ever, just moments after we moved here but six years after my initial diagnosis and surgery, and several more mets after that.

And no one told us about any of this when we were looking for a place to live. Not one word. We learned it ourselves over the course of years.

And yes, I am still pissed off about that.

Jeanne said...

Jeez, Sara, I didn't know you were part of a cancer cluster too. Of course you are angry--I'm angry too. That should be required info to divulge when you rent or sell a house (good luck to all of us getting that law, of course).

I have a problem with class action suits, because in the end, the lawyers tend to collect millions and each member of the class gets peanuts. I would say stay out of the class but sue on your own after it wins--if you are inclined to sue, but don't we all have better things to do with the time that we have?

We have some cancer clusters here in Washington state. The best known is the Downwinders, the folks in Eastern Washington who lived near Hanford, the nuclear plant where the plutonium for one (at least) of the bombs dropped on Japan was created. My aunt, who has had breast cancer, lived there for several years right after WWII.

The weirder one, because reason isn't clear, is breast cancer on what we call the Eastside, which are the well-to-do suburbs across the lake from Seattle. I've never lived over there.

If my cancer has a cause, I think it was stress, because I was in an over-the-top stressful job for a year just before my cancer was diagnosed.


Anonymous said...

I hear you re stress. I think I got my brain tumor grieving over the death of my last cat. Honestly.

As for lawsuits, any lawsuit in which I might have participated was over long before we moved in. But seriously, it would take a lot for me personally to ever sue anybody over anything. A hell of a lot. See, I worked for lawyers for 18 years up and down the west coast, and I have come to believe that lawsuits are Satan. They can suck up your entire life -- kind of like cancer. Since I already have cancer, I won't be suing anyone (though I can't speak for my heirs, so nobody'd better get any ideas).

I just want the information. I want all the information. I want it all to be gathered and put out there, so we as a species can learn from our own behavior and do better -- if there is better to be done -- in the future. I also am pissed about not being given information that would have profoundly affected my choices, and maybe the course of my life and the length of it without even dreaming of suing anyone. Yes, there does need to be a law. We weren't even told the Air Force base/airport was there, and no, during the hour or so we spent touring our new-home-to-be during our one week to find it, we couldn't see the base/airport through the trees because it was early September and the trees in that suburbs are dense and tall.

Who knows? We may still have rented there. We didn't have a lot of choices. But we wouldn't have stayed so long, and I wouldn't have grown vegetables in the soil in the back yard.

Jeanne said...

Sara--I completely agree. About lawsuits, about needing this information to be out there, and also that you might have moved there anyway, but at least it would have been an informed choice.

Another topic for the Cancer Bloggers Reunion: cancer clusters. Another one: fighting back (which could be on any level ...).


Miss Vicky said...

I guess my head's been in the sand or the clouds or something, but I just heard about the cancer cluster (I'm going to call it what I think it is) at your workplace a couple of weeks ago. I am shocked. And really, really pissed off for you and the sisters. If a similar string of cancer occurrences showed up in a...oh I don't know... hospital, perhaps, or university campus, or municipal building, would the organization in question be so dismissive, I wonder?

Jeanne said...

Actually, I believe these clusters have shown up in public buildings, and the response was the same. I can't quote an example off the top of my head, but I've read about it.

Also, "sick buildings," where the employees complain about health problems when working in the building--the employees are typically labeled troublemakers.

Vodka Mom said...

WOW. Now I;m scared. We had four women in our old school diagnosed with cancer (breast, uterus, et.,) over a 8 year period. The old school has since been demolished and a new one built. Nothing was ever investigated, but those of us veterans still discuss it and live with a bit of fear.

good luck....