CAMERON — When Jim Frasher went to the doctor in January, he wanted to know why he was so sick, confused and agitated. He was stunned by the answer: a benign tumor about the size of a golf ball on his brain stem.
Frasher and his wife, Catherine, soon found out that he was one of several people in Cameron who had been diagnosed with tumors in the last six years.
THE PROBLEM: Some residents of Cameron, a town of 6,500 in northwest Missouri, have sought an investigation into the cause of a higher-than-expected number of tumors in the town. THE NUMBERS: An unofficial list found 11 tumors reported in the town since 2002, with at least seven reported in the last two years. Those involved say the number is likely higher and they want an investigation to find a potential cause. WHAT’S HAPPENING: The state has begun a cancer inquiry. So far, it has ruled out water as a potential cause. The state health department is gathering more information and will decide whether further investigation is required.
The couple compiled a list of 11 Cameron-area residents — four women and seven men — who had tumors between 2002 and 2008, seven of them in the last two years. Their ages range from a 6-year-old boy to the 61-year-old Frasher; their tumors are nearly evenly divided between benign and malignant; and all but one of the tumors were in the brain.
The Frashers and others say that number is too high in the northwest Missouri town of 6,500 residents, and they want to know what might be causing the illnesses. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has started a cancer inquiry, but many experts say finding a single cause for several tumors in a specific area is nearly impossible, in part because so many different kinds of cancers exist and the disease has numerous causes.
A public meeting on the progress of the investigation is scheduled for Thursday in Cameron.
“Cameron’s our home,” Frasher said from his hospital bed at Cameron Regional Medical Center, where he is undergoing physical therapy. “We moved here because we wanted to live here. We’re not out to hurt Cameron but we think something should be done. We need to find out what’s causing it.”
Tests by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources have ruled out water as a likely cause.
Now, the Department of Health and Senior Services is investigating the reported cases and asking Cameron residents to contact local health offices if they’ve been diagnosed. After about two months, that information will be forwarded to a state Cancer Inquiry Committee, which would determine if further testing is required, said Nanci Gonder, spokeswoman for the health department.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not involved in the Cameron investigation, said spokeswoman Terica Scott.
State Rep. Jim Guest, R-King City, whose district includes Cameron, has had water samples from Cameron sent to an independent laboratory for more detailed testing and is asking people in five surrounding counties to report their tumors to his office.
“Whether you say it’s six in the last few months or 12 or 13 in the last few years, I know we have had a lot of brain tumors, far above what should be a random occurrence,” said Guest, who said a normal rate is about 10 per 10,000 people.
Finding a single cause for the tumors in Cameron may be particularly difficult because the known cases do not appear to have a common link, such as a workplace or neighborhood. The range of ages and the split between benign and malignant tumors also makes it unlikely that a single cause may be found, according to cancer experts.
And with cancer causing one out of five deaths in the U.S., most areas that have a statistically higher number of cases than expected are simply due to chance, according to the American Cancer Society.
Charles Lynch, a professor of epidemiology and director of the State Health Registry in Iowa, said most cancer inquiries don’t find a single cause for cases in a specific area. Iowa has investigated 105 potential cancer clusters since 1994 and only two were found to require further investigation.
Missouri has had 45 inquiries in the last three years, Gonder said.
“That doesn’t mean there is no value in doing these investigations,” Lynch said. “The great value is having experts look at the situation can calm fear and anxiety in the community, which can get quite high.”
Anxiety was high in Cameron when the first television report about the tumors aired, Guest said, but it calmed somewhat when the Department of Natural Resources said the water was safe. The Frashers said they have heard some negative comments about their efforts to publicize the tumors.
But Jim Frasher said he wants people who might not know they have tumors to be identified, especially the area’s children, so they can be treated.
Lynch said people often don’t accept that a single cause can’t be found and accuse investigators of “sticking their heads in the sand.” They often suspect water, air pollution, power lines, cell phones, pesticides or chemicals from an industry in the area.
“All those things are possibilities, but in terms of what we know today, lifestyle is the most important factor in cancer cases,” he said.
Holly Buckman, a 28-year-old single mother who was diagnosed with a tumor on her pituitary glands in 2002, supports the Frashers’ efforts.
“Mine was diagnosed a few years ago, so I don’t know if it’s connected to the new cases,” said Buckman, whose aunt also had a tumor. “But it’s weird. I’m raising a son here, and I think something should be figured out.”