WRAL Investigates

State: Wake students' illnesses not a cancer cluster

Posted December 6, 2013 2:04 p.m. EST
Updated December 6, 2013 6:38 p.m. EST

— About a year after a Wake Forest mother pushed the state to investigate why several local teenagers were battling a rare form of cancer, state officials say they have found no cause or reason to classify the cases as a cancer cluster.

Three of the teens lived within 3 to 4 miles of each other and were in the same graduating class at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School. They all battled Ewing sarcoma – a cancer so rare that only about 200 people under the age of 20 in the U.S. are diagnosed with it each year, according to the state's report.

Alex Harris, Zach Osborne and Carly O'Day were all diagnosed within 18 months of one another and are all now in remission. The state has so far identified five people total between 2009 and 2012 who were diagnosed with the rare disease living in the same Wake Forest ZIP code. State officials say there could be more.

After the WRAL Investigates team reported on the teens’ story in late April, the state began investigating. In a report released Dec. 3, the North Carolina Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch (OEEB) found that the cancer cases occurred within the same Wake Forest ZIP code by chance.

“OEEB was not able to identify any common environmental exposures that were likely to be associated with Ewing sarcoma,” according to the report’s findings. “In addition, the CCR (North Carolina Central Cancer Registry) did not find a higher incidence of Ewing sarcoma in Wake County compared to what would be expected for 2008-2012.”

“There was not enough data that showed that it could be classified as a cancer cluster,” said Julie Henry, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services. “One of the things that also came out of part of this investigation is the reality that our cancer reporting mechanism isn’t always as timely.”

Cancer information is sent to the state from hospitals and doctors. It now comes in at least six months after treatment. The teens’ families say they want it reported 30 days after diagnosis.

“I think they missed a rare opportunity to actually find one of the causes to Ewing sarcoma, because we waited too late,” said Robin Harris, Alex Harris’ mother. “Then, information gets quicker to the cancer registry, and then there’s going to be more of a chance of them finding a cancer cluster or problem sooner than in the case of what happened to our children.”

Julie O’Day, Carly O’Day's mother, says “there is no way it occurred by chance.”

“It’s a joke. They just don’t have an explanation for it,” she said. “I’m glad (WRAL Investigates) drilled them and got them to do this. I think the news program got them interested in doing this.

“So, I did have some satisfaction that at least they took the problem seriously, but I don’t think they delved into it deep enough,” Julie O’Day added. “Are more children at risk? I don’t know. I would like for this not to happen again to anyone else.”