Polly Schlaff

In August 2006, my fit and seemingly healthy husband learned that he had cancer at the age of 33. On December 14, 2008, Doug died. Doug was a former college athlete, a high-school guidance counselor and the father of three young boys. From the beginning, we knew that Doug’s cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, was environmental. His doctor assured us that our children were not at risk as Ewing’s does not run in families, but rather, it is caused by exposure.

Although Doug’s doctor encouraged us to focus on the treatment for his illness and not the cause of his cancer, I became suspicious of numerous potential risks in our environment. I wondered if the water from our faucet, which I used to fill our boys’ water bottles could have caused Doug’s cancer. I wondered if the cleaning products that I assumed would rid our house of illness caused it. I wondered if the food that I prepared for our family in an effort to provide good nutrition could contain cancer-causing substances. It occurred to me that warnings that I often ignored about known carcinogens in everything from the pesticides that we put on our lawn to the paint with which we colored the walls of our home might be the cause of Doug’s cancer. Reality hit home. These toxins and the many others in our environment had the ability to affect my life in a lasting and disastrous manner.

From this perspective, a string of bad news from my hometown of White Lake further unsettled me. White Lake is a small community on the shores of Lake Michigan. Peaceful and picturesque, it is a favorite summer getaway for families from Chicago and a seemingly ideal place to grow up. Unfortunately, White Lake was also the home to a number of chemical industries, most infamously Hooker Chemical, and White Lake is one of twenty-six Great Lake Areas of Concern, identified by the EPA because of its history of toxins in the environment.

In the span of one year of Doug’s cancer treatment, three friends raised in our same small hometown, were diagnosed with breast cancer at the ages of 29, 30 & 30. Later, we would learn of another Ewing’s patient who had spent her summers on White Lake less than ½ mile from Doug’s boyhood home and like Doug was in her early thirties. As Ewing’s is extremely rare (less than 200 diagnosed in the U.S. each year) and typically a childhood cancer, this news was shocking.

Five months after Doug’s death, my sister’s husband, Andy, who had also spent most of his childhood and adult life on the shores of White Lake, visited the emergency room with a severe headache only to learn that he had a brain tumor. He was 33.

In response to Andy’s diagnosis and Doug’s death, my mother-in-law, Claire, and I, along with a committee of like-minded citizens, formed the White Lake Cancer Mapping Project. We are compiling data on cancer patients who live or formerly lived in White Lake. Our goal is to present our list to the epidemiologist at our local health department, who has agreed to evaluate the data and map the addresses of participants, to identify potential cancer clusters.

My motivation in working on this project is a hope that some day my children and grandchildren will live in a healthier and cleaner world. I pray that in their time our society will expend as much energy on identifying and eliminating the causes of illnesses as we do on treating them once they occur.