Theory sheds new light on McFarland cancer cluster

Theory sheds new light on McFarland cancer cluster
A mysterious cancer cluster garnered national media attention in McFarland, California in the 1980's. Decades later, reaserchers are still looking into what may have caused it.

Angela Chavez now lives in Bakersfield, but grew up on Robertson Street in McFarland. She was one several children in the mid 1980's who suddenly developed cancer.

Chavez was one of the McFarland cancer cluster suriviors. Now 31-years-old, she doesn't remember much from that time in her life.

"I remember the first chemo and radiation, waking up with like bits and pieces of hair on my pillow until one day I didn't have hair," Chavez said.

At age three while playing with her brother, she got a bump on her head and the news changed her life.

"My mother had taken me into the emergency room for the knot on my head and the doctors came out and told her then that not only was that all that was wrong with me, but that I had cancer," Chavez said.

The year was 1984 and doctors found cancer in both kidneys.
Eventually all but a quarter of each of Angela's kidney was removed.

"I remember I would be taken to like every church and prayed for and that's like a big part of just where I think I got my strength and where I found strength in myself."

It happened all in less than a year's time. Upwards of 14 children were diagnosed in the mid '80's. Several children died.

The cancer cluster peaked in the early 1990's. County, state and federal health departments investigated. Air, water, soil and even indoor dust were all tested. The conclusion was that none had unusual levels leading to cancer.

Martha Salinas is a community activist in McFarland, and years later, still wants answers.

Back in 1988 Salinas spoke at a community meeting.

"Nobody deserves this," Salinas said. "There was another child born two months ago without a hand."

"You guys think there's not a problem. Lets wake up and quit playing your games," Salinas told health officials.

Doctor Joseph Wiemels is a renown epidemiologist at UC San Francisco. He has extensively researched Leukemia for 15 years.

Wiemels works at the university's cancer research center is where doctors are trying to find a cure.

"I think we continue to have a situation where there's a lot more frustration than answers to cancer clusters and that's, that's true for McFarland as well," Dr. Wiemels said.

Wiemels said clusters are hard to determine because you are quote: "Always looking back.":

But, his research led to a fascinating theory as to how cancer clusters may occur. For the past few years, he's studied a cancer cluster in Fallon, Nevada, a small town east of Reno.

There, an unusually high incidence of childhood Leukemia occurred between 1997 and 2003: 16 cases and three deaths.

While high levels of Tungsten or leaking jet fuel in the area are deemed as suspects, experts aren't convinced they're the cause.

"Probably why some children got cancer is because they had a pre existing genetic chance or mutation or some type of disposition that was triggered by a secondary event," Wiemels said.

But what secondary event?

Fallon is home to a naval air station. It's also agricultural based with canals and a high mosquito population.

Wiemels theorized military personnel coming in and out of the community from other parts of the world may have carried some kind of virus. That virus was passed on by mosquitoes to children in the rural portion of Fallon.

"So that gives us one possible vector for the transmission of a virus since those children are located near irrigation ditches," Weimels said. "This is cutting edge. It is brand new research,"

Wiemels cautioned his research is in theory only and has no proof a mosquito is the culprit.

And coincidentally, he added there was a spike in childhood Leukemia cases across the military during the years of the Fallon cancer cluster.

So, when looking at McFarland, could the transient nature of the cities farm worker labor force mirror the transient nature of Fallon's armed forces?

What is the possibility a mosquito may be part of the cause for the McFarland cancer cluster?

"We are two steps away from making any link between a mosquito and the McFarland cancer cluster," Weimels said. "The most important step is really showing a mosquito can cause a viral transmission that induces Leukemia anywhere."

Ironically, Chavez, who lost most of her kidneys to cancer, works at a Bakersfield kidney dialysis center.

She's just grateful cancer researchers like Joseph Wiemels are dedicated to finding a cure. And, perhaps one day finding the reason behind what ravaged her small community decades ago.

"Anybody like that that has a concern for other peoples well being and puts studying into it I support them 100 percent and I think that very well could be a possibility," Chavez said.

Wiemels stressed much more research is needed in regards to his theory involving a mosquito as a trigger for inducing cancer.

Spokesman from the Centers for Disease Control and the California Department of Public Health said they do not comment on research that it did not take part in.