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.