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Fear of possible ‘cancer cluster’ gains attention

Julie Greenwalt graduated from Satellite High School in 2003. Her best friend who graduated the same year died in 2015, at the age of 30, of a rare form of breast cancer.

A year later, Greenwalt was diagnosed with another rare form of cancer.

Neither woman had any family history or genetic markers for their diseases.

“I really didn’t think anything of it until a few months later when I was at a meeting with some high school friends and they said, ‘We’ve had a few other classmates die of cancer,’” Greenwalt said during a recent phone interview.

Greenwalt isn’t just a cancer survivor – she’s an oncologist at a prominent cancer center in Jacksonville. Friends and acquaintances naturally turn to her for advice when they or a family member have been diagnosed with the disease. Often, they are fellow SHS alumni – or their children or siblings.

She started to think: Could these cancers be related?

She called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a few years ago when she knew of five cases, and three victims had already died. She also reported the cases she was aware of to the state.

At first, she wondered if the link was related to the fact that she and three others she knew with cancer had lived in the same neighborhood in Suntree.

Then she saw recent news reports about contaminated water on Patrick Air Force Base. “It just hit me: I wonder if it has something to do with what they have over there?”

The Department of Defense issued a report in March listing 126 military bases nationwide where water on base or nearby is contaminated with perfluorinated compounds known to cause birth defects and certain types of cancer. The chemicals are used in many everyday household items, but are heavily concentrated in the foam used to put out aircraft fires.

The contaminants were found in water at Patrick. The DOD did not test any groundwater outside of the base.

Greenwalt decided to post a request on her Facebook page, asking fellow Satellite High alums to contact her if they have been diagnosed with cancer. She immediately heard of 15 former SHS students who had cancer. The response was so overwhelming that she took the post down a week later, and called the health department.

Now, she’s asking people to contact the Brevard County Health Department directly. The department also recently put out a message asking for anyone who ever lived near Patrick and was diagnosed with cancer to call 321-454-7101. The post said the request was made after a “concerned citizen” contacted them.

Greenwalt, who calls herself a “concerned survivor,” doesn’t know if the post was made on her behalf. “There is strength in numbers,” she said. “The more people report, the more people will care and hopefully look into it.”

Questions about pollution from the base have plagued the area for years. The state previously identified two clusters of Hodgkins disease in South Patrick Shores, a military housing area in Satellite Beach. One of those clusters was in the late 1960s, the other in the early 1980s.

As an oncologist, Greenwalt is careful with the term “cancer cluster,” defined by the CDC as “a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.” All the cancers need to be of the same type, or types of cancer scientifically proven to have the same cause.

The cancers Greenwalt has heard about vary in their type and known causes. “I know what a cancer cluster is,” Greenwalt said. “I know it’s supposed to be one type. “It’s really hard to link the same types of cancer. It’s really hard to link different types of cancer.”

But the coincidences gnaw at her.

She points out that 30-year-olds are the least likely age group to get cancer, yet she knows many people in that age range – including herself – who were stricken by the disease, again with no family history or genetic markers.

Her hope now is that someone – the health department, the state, the CDC – tracks people from Satellite Beach who have had rare cancers in their 30s.

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