NBC 10 I-Team: Woman tracks 20 plus cancer cases among classmates
It was 2010 when a former North Providence student was first diagnosed with cancer and she’s been battling the disease ever since.
Cheryl Thorpe has spent the last six years fighting the disease, but she’s also spent those years tracking her former classmates’ health. At least 21 of them were diagnosed with cancer – three with ovarian cancer and 18 with breast cancer.
Thorpe and her classmates from the graduating classes of 1984, 1985 and 1986 have joined more than 20 former teachers and staff with concerns that something in their schools may be a factor in their cancer diagnoses.
In 2005, Thorpe says she had ovarian cysts, but no evidence of cancer. When the cysts recurred in 2011, she asked for a hysterectomy. She had a partial hysterectomy, and that’s when doctors found cancer.
“They said it was a dot, stage one – no problem,” Thorpe recalls. “Then I went in two weeks later and it was stage three – it had traveled through my lymph nodes.”
“I have metastatic incurable fallopian tube cancer,” Thorpe said. “I’ve never been cancer free.”
During treatment, Thorpe recognized the woman being treated beside her. It wasn’t long before she began to realize there were even more she knew with the same disease, from the same town, from the same schools.
“I’ve been tracking this since I was diagnosed six years ago, and there were 12 of us at that time,” Thorpe told the NBC 10 I-Team. “When I was diagnosed, I took a long, hard look at who else had it. Their situations were similar and we all lived near each other and hung around together.”
One of her classmates just completed her one year mammography. She attended Stephen Olney Elementary school, one of the schools that are being demolished to make room for a new school, Ricci Middle School. She was also a member of North Providence High School’s graduating class of 1985.
“Last year we were talking about this and said it has to be something in the school or in the town of North Providence,” said “Lisa” a classmate who asked to remain unnamed. “It’s unbelievable, crazy that there are so many of us from North Providence.”
Two of the 18 classmates diagnosed with breast cancer died in 2015. They were 44 and 47. Others, she said, are now cancer free.
A third classmate also spoke with the NBC 10 I-Team and asked to remain unnamed. “Pam” was also diagnosed with breast cancer and wants answers.
Donna Cantone of North Providence is an ovarian and cervical cancer survivor. Cantone, 48, attended North Providence High School between 1983 and 1987, but is not one of the classmates included in Thorpe's list.
Nearly 10 years after her graduating from North Providence, Cantone was diagnosed with ovarian and cervical cancer.
" I had a total radical hysterectomy in 2007 at 38 years old," Cantone told the NBC 10 I-Team. "I lost my chance to bear children and this has been haunting me since."
No one in Canton's family has the same type of cancer. Cantone said she thought it was the talc, but was negative for talc. She reached out to the NBC 10 I-Team looking for answers because she too knows of other classmates with the same disease.
"It haunts me, I stress over how did I get this and watching people from the town lose their battle or fight it."
Thorpe said she’s been thinking about her and her classmates’ diagnoses for years and wondered what in the environment could be causing it, but didn’t know what to do with the information.
“I didn’t connect it to the school, I connected it to the environment and the Woonasquatucket River and the factories nearby,” she said.
But other classmates did wonder if it were the school. Thorpe and others supported one another, some turning to social media to share their stories and lean on other classmates for encouragement and strength.
That’s where she first learned of the teachers who were speaking with the NBC 10 I-Team about their concerns.
“I was grateful that someone had done the story,” Thorpe said. “I want the information to get the Dept. of Health.”
“This is hell. If children get it, I can’t imagine,” she said in tears.
Fear that children will become ill if a new school is built at the same location is why several teachers and staff diagnosed with cancer first contacted the NBC 10 I-Team. Parents and teachers want Stephen Olney and Whelan elementary schools tested before they are demolished and a new school is built on the same soil.
They and now parents have taken their concerns to the school department over what they call BAND-AIDs, quick fixes to problems and lack of communication.
The school department said it will test all North Providence schools for lead and asbestos and that additional radon tests are also in the works.
Thorpe, who no longer lives in North Providence, said she understands why some parents, teachers and former students want to hold people accountable, but said she wants to focus on finding an answer and has faith that the town’s administration will make that happen.
“This is not a witch hunt,” she said. “With Mayor (Charles) Lombardi, I have a lot of faith.”
“He’s a doer, he’ll make sure his constituents and the town is safe,” she added.
As for the temporary fixes made in the schools in question, Thorpe said it’s time to address it.
“There are BAND-AIDs everywhere,” she said. “Now that the BAND-AIDs aren’t working anymore, they have no choice but to face this head on.”