Raleigh, N.C. — One week after the WRAL Investigates team reported on three Wake Forest teenagers battling the same rare form of cancer, state health officials have decided to investigate the cases further.
Robin Harris pushed the state to investigate after three teenagers from the same Wake Forest-Rolesville High School graduating class, including her son Alex Harris, were diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma. A fourth teen who lived nearby received the same diagnosis in 2009.
The teens all lived within a 3- to 4-mile radius of each other, prompting Harris to report concerns about a possible cancer cluster to her son’s doctor at Duke University Hospital, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and a sarcoma organization.
She and the other families say they were under the assumption that the cases would be investigated. Robin Harris says she was told the cases would be referred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The WRAL Investigates team found that the state did not do a thorough investigation, the CDC was not informed of the cases and the families were kept in the dark due to an "unfortunate oversight," according to a DHHS spokeswoman.
On May 6, the director of the Central Cancer Registry, which is part of DHHS, sent a letter to Robin Harris, promising a "further review" of the cases.
"We agree the number of cases identified in the requester's school is cause for additional inquiry," according to the agency's May 6 report.
Robin Harris says she is pleased with the progress.
"We're at least getting something, which is a lot better than nothing before," she said. "I want to see something happen, and I do think they'll be trying because of the media attention."
DHHS communications director Ricky Diaz said in a statement Thursday that the agency has asked the Harris family, as well as the other families involved, to provide more information.
"Based on their answers and discussion with the patients’ health care providers, we will decide next steps," Diaz said.
Duke Hospital and public health department officials say they rely on families to report suspected cancer clusters. State health officials say they investigate 12 to 15 possible clusters a year and that confirming one is very rare. The last confirmed cancer cluster was in Greensboro in 2012, and the cause was undetermined.
Those who want to report a possible cancer cluster should call DHHS's Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology branch at 919-707-5900.