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NBC 10 I-Team: North Providence cancer patients, survivors demand answers

These six women, who shared their stories of cancer, are asking the RI Health Dept. to include them in its investigation of a possible cancer cluster (WJAR photo)

Several former North Providence students, diagnosed with cancer, have spoken out over the state’s investigation of a possible cancer cluster in North Providence saying they are unhappy with the Rhode Island Department of Health’s response to their inquiries.

Nearly 50 people within a three-year range of graduation from North Providence High School, who have been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, told the NBC 10 I-Team they believe it may be radon or some other toxin in the school that has contributed to their diagnoses. And they are asking the state to take a closer look.

The Rhode Island Department of Health opened its investigation into a possible cancer cluster in that town after the NBC 10 I-Team reported several North Providence teachers were diagnosed with cancer and uncovered that elevated levels of radon at many of the town’s schools were never addressed.

Health Department Spokesman Joseph Wendelken said the department is investigating the teachers’ cancer cases by taking the names of the more than 2,000 teachers who taught between 1970 and 2017 and cross referencing the information with the state’s cancer registry.

Elevated radon in North Providence schools

The NBC 10 I-Team uncovered elevated radon was found in the basement of North Providence High School in 1997 and again in 2002, but the elevated levels were never mitigated. And that has some former students and the parents of current students concerned.

“My initial reaction with where the elevated levels were found - I spent 90 percent of my day in that part of the building,” Brenda Hammerschmidt told the I-Team.

Hammerschmidt, who graduated from North Providence High School in 1984, was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in 2016. She has joined a group of former classmates, who have also been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, to track cases of cancer amongst their former classmates.

Cheryl Thorpe, is part of that group. Thorpe first began keeping a list in 2011 after she noticed a pattern of friends diagnosed with breast cancer. Six years ago there were 12, but that number has jumped to 43. And the list continues to grow.

Thorpe, who is battling stage 3 fallopian tube cancer, and her group of former classmates have reunited not only to offer support to one another, but to also get answers. They hope to do that by connecting with former classmates, teachers and staff who have been diagnosed with cancer. The group has launched a Facebook page with the handle @noprovcancer and created an email account noprovcancer@gmail.com as a way for others to reach out.

Proving a cancer cluster

Several of the women in that group reached out to the Health Department for information, but told the I-Team they were disappointed with what they were told.

“They said it’s hard to prove there is a cluster... and people get sick all the time -that’s what they said - ‘people get sick all they time and it’s hard to prove whether it’s the school, the river or the radon,’” Cheryl Eacueo, a former NPHS student said.

Eacueo does not have cancer, but her sister Denise Balado-Testa did. Testa, who graduated from NPHS in 1981, was first diagnosed with cancer in her 30s and diagnosed again in 2005. She lost her battle with the disease in May 2016 after the cancer spread throughout her body.

Eacueo and her mother Viola Balado joined the group in hopes of getting answers to questions they’ve had for decades.

The family attended a North Providence town meeting about 20 years ago when residents were concerned about a cancer cluster.

“The question was asked, ‘does this mean at some point in my life I will have cancer?’ but of course they wouldn’t answer,” Balado said.

“It feels to me that there is something going on in North Providence,” Eacueo said. “Growing up there, going to school there. We can’t all be dealing with this if there was not a cluster there.”

“I feel the town knew something was seriously wrong back then and did little about it,” she added.

Requests to expand study

Robin Rongione Heim, a graduate of NPHS Class of 1984 who was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2015, told the I-Team she too was disappointed in what she was told by the health department.

“They said they don’t have the money," she told the I-Team. "They said they don’t have enough people to look into everybody."

But Heim was not happy with that response. “We want action,” she said. “We want this taken care of - it can’t go on any longer.”

Wendelken said the department understands the former students’ frustration, but said the department is in its first phase of the process and needs to look at many factors including age, medical history and environmental factors.

"A lot of information has to get shared,” Wendelken added. “We have to be extremely cautious in doing that in a way that respects everyone's privacy and confidentiality."

Wendelken went on to say depending on what the analysis shows, more cancer cases may be included in the future. “We start from a smaller circle and move our way out,” he said.

He also pointed to the fact that 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer.

Questions of accuracy

For Tonya McConnell, a 1985 grad of NPHS, it’s no longer about looking back at what wasn’t done, it’s about pushing forward and doing things right this time. And for her, that means including the former students in the analysis.

“What we are just asking for is simultaneously while you review the teachers, to review the students,” she said.

That may happen, but not yet, according to Wendelken. “We start from a smaller circle and move our way out,” he said.

McConnell, who was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in 2016, told the I-Team that she’s also concerned about the accuracy and depth of the health department’s investigation because the state’s cancer registry does not include people who no longer live in Rhode Island.

That means a teacher or student who taught at or attended North Providence schools, but moved out of state and was diagnosed while living out of state, would not be included in the registry and therefore will not be included in the investigation of a cancer cluster.

“You will not have accurate data,” McConnell said she told the health department. The investigation is still in process and may take a full six months.

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