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Fort Pierce's 'first step' cancer meeting a letdown

Stuart News - 6/14/2018

What St. Lucie County residents at a special meeting about a rash of brain cancer cases wanted was answers – or at least some sharing of information.

Neither happened Tuesday evening at Indian River State College's Public Safety complex. Perhaps one of the reasons was the format of the meeting, hosted by the Florida Department of Health in St. Lucie County.

Many attendees had assumed there would be a town hall-style meeting with a panel of experts to answer questions that would be heard by the whole audience.

Instead, what we got was an informal gathering of experts from several state agencies and other cancer organizations sitting at tables around the room. They did try to answer questions from the public one on one, but no one except those asking could hear the answers.

Additionally, no one from the Centers for Disease Control or Florida Power & Light, both of whom were invited, showed up.

St. Lucie Health Administrator Clint Sperber stressed the meeting was the first step in a process of learning about the cancer cases.

"I'm not sure what I expected," Sperber said, "but the turnout has been constant. I hope it's useful and that people are asking questions. Maybe we'll have a more formal meeting in the future, but as a first step this is what we wanted.

"We're compiling information and hope to have answers to the questions people are asking on our website sometime this summer."

For family members of Mark Cunningham, who was diagnosed with rare and incurable glioblastoma two years ago, the meeting was "a giant disappointment," said Cunningham's mother in law Alice Hughes.

"I thought it would be much more informative. The open house format wasn't efficient; people wandered in and didn't hear the (overview) speeches (from officials given at the start of the meeting)."

Kathy Krueger agreed. Her father-in-law died in 1998 of glioblastoma and had spent time as a child in the same White City area as other cancer diagnoses.

St. Lucie County Commissioner Frannie Hutchinson said the more than 100-strong crowd attending the event was larger than she'd expected.

"But it's sad to see so many community members here," Hutchinson said, noting "the majority of (the glioblastoma cases) are in my district."

Hutchinson said she was glad the Health Department had taken the initiative.

"I'd really like to see us get to the next level – testing – but it takes a lot of time, and it's very expensive. There are a lot of family histories to gather, so there are no easy, overnight answers," she said.

State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said she will be closely monitoring any reports about the cancer cases. While she noted the CDC has ruled out a declaration of a cancer cluster in the 34982 ZIP code, "the numbers are significant."

State Rep. Larry Lee Jr., D-Port St. Lucie, also was at the meeting. He thought it "was a great first step, but we have to dig deeper because something's causing this. I don't know if it's environmental or what."

The problem with the St. Lucie County cases, state experts explained, is they have been unable to spot any unusual incidence of cancers here that are over and above what they'd normally expect to see in Florida's elderly population.

Yet while glioblastoma typically attacks people in their 60s, local cases have been in men in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

While the Florida Cancer Registry compiles data from every reported case of cancer, Mark Cunningham's wife, Stephanie, (who started a glioblastoma support group here) believes they may be looking in the wrong places.

She points out Mark spent much of his childhood in the same White City neighborhood as other sufferers, even though he subsequently moved away. Cunningham said she will supply the registry with details of how St. Lucie glioblastoma patients may be linked on their past geography, not where they live now.

As expected, there were almost as many theories about what is causing these rare cancers as there were people at the meeting.

One group, the Electromagnetic Radiation Awareness for the Treasure Coast, believes brain cancers may be caused by radiation from power lines, cell phones or other sources.

Others think the cancers come from pollution of drinking water sources, perhaps from the citrus industry.

As Sperber said, the meeting was a first step in learning more about the glioblastoma cases. Let's hope his department will lead the charge in looking closer at possible causes in the very near future.

Time is precious, especially for the families of those living with this catastrophic illness.

Anthony Westbury is a columnist for TCPalm. This column reflects his opinion. Contact him at 772-221-4220, anthony,westbury@tcpalm.com, or follow him @TCPalmWestbury on Twitter.

 
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