‘Mom squad’ hopes officials will survey child cancer in area

'Mom squad' hopes officials will survey child cancer in area Robin Richardson's dining room table is often filled with papers that include everything from analyses of Vermillion's drinking water to data from the National Cancer Institute and the South Dakota Chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. By continuing to collect data � and petition signatures � she and other Vermillion volunteers hope to persuade state health officials to study Vermillion's childhood cancer cases. by David Lias It wasn�t unusual to see several women at the recent Clay County Fair � toting clipboards, pens and petitions � hard at work gathering signatures from community residents.

The petitions are the brainchild of Robin Richardson, a relative newcomer to town who has demonstrated that she isn�t afraid to stand by her convictions and tackle an enormous task.

Richardson is growing more and more familiar with Vermillion townsfolk, and she�s learning more and more about a dreaded topic � cancer � after recently launching a drive to gather signatures. She hopes a show of public support will influence the state health department to take a closer look at the number of cancer cases among children in Vermillion.

Not long after Richardson, her husband and their young children moved to Vermillion, they began to hear of recent happenings in the community: ? Four-year-old Dylan Fischbach�s 18-month brave battle with cancer that cost him his right leg.

? Dagmar Schalliol�s daughter, who is in remission with neuroblastoma adrenal cancer.

? Julie Reetz, 12, who succumbed to cancer in June 1998.

? Dexter Johnson and Philip Munkvold, two Vermillion third-graders who are on the road to recovery after it was discovered the two classmates at Austin Elementary had cancer last year. Dexter was diagnosed with ependymoma, a form of brain cancer. Philip was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Richardson, who lived and worked in Atlanta, GA before moving to South Dakota, said she was never aware of similar cancer cases � at such a seemingly high rate � among children there.

The first action the Richardsons took after learning of Vermillion�s kids with cancer was to do all they could to help protect their family.

The Richardsons had their Vermillion home checked for radon. They don�t drink tap water. For consumption, they purchase bottled water certified to be free from additives and chemicals.

Those efforts weren�t enough for Richardson, especially after she determined that the cancers that have been diagnosed in Vermillion children in recent years have had astronomical odds of occurrence, mostly around one in 100,000.

And after she learned that South Dakota, unlike Georgia, hasn�t had a system in place to track the disease in the state.

So Richardson began the petition drive earlier this summer, with the original intent of hoping to convince the state to hire a full-time epidemiologist. An epidemiologist�s job entails studying the incidence and distribution of disease and the control and prevention of it.

It turns out the state was a step ahead of Richardson. In early August, Dr. Sarah Patrick joined the South Dakota Health Department as the state�s new epidemiologist.

The scope of the petition drive � which by early August was snowballing in Vermillion � then changed. Richardson and the �mom squad� of 10 volunteers she recruited decided to work at collecting signatures to request help from the state and the National Centers for Disease Control to study the area�s cancer rate.

If the rate is determined to be high, the citizen force behind the petition drive wants medical experts to determine a cause.

In the meantime, Richardson, who admits she�s no medical expert, can�t help but be concerned as she conducts her own research on cancer cases in South Dakota.

�I�m not a statistician,� she said while poring over stacks of papers spread out over her dining room table. �I�m not a research scientist. But the cancers we�re learning about are so rare, you just can�t claim it�s an anomaly.�

Vermillion, she fears, could be the site of a cancer cluster. �There was a leukemia cluster here that we found out about,� Richardson said.

Twenty-five years ago, six Vermillion children were diagnosed with leukemia.

�We�ve got proof that our stats are really high here in South Dakota,� Richardson said. �There are seven cases of Ewing�s Sarcoma that I know of in the state. You shouldn�t have one in the state of South Dakota.�

Richardson learned of the diagnosed cases of Ewing�s Sarcoma and other types of childhood cancer by getting a list of statistics from the South Dakota chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation for the last five years.

�It literally just stunned me," Richardson said. �It indicated the seven cases of Ewing�s Sarcoma. And then you realize that, according to the experts, that�s only supposed to happen to one child out of 1.6 million children.�

The Vermillion mom squad has collected approximately 800 signatures. Once they have gathered petitions with 1,000 signed names, they will submit copies of them to the state�s Congressional delegation and the health department in Pierre, hoping that some action can be taken.

Patrick, however, has already indicated in phone conversations with Richardson and in media reports that her office may not be able to satisfy the Vermillion women�s wishes.

�I think that was premature on her part,� Richardson said. �I think she was basing her conclusions on the need for knowledge that we didn�t have at that time.

�We�re not expecting people to come in and conduct a study that will provide definitive answers,� Richardson said. �But I don�t want to guess if its the soil or the air or the water that�s causing cancer here. I don�t think our purpose at this point in time is to guess.�

She realizes that scientists may not be able to provide all the answers.

�You might never be able to definitely prove that XYZ causes cancer,� Richardson said. �We might only be able to identify an agent here as a suspected carcinogen. All we want is an investigation.�

According to her research, it could take from five to 15 years to gather enough useful data on cancer rates in South Dakota and in Vermillion.

�That is why we want a cancer investigation,� Richardson said. �We want to try to get a handle on the cancer cases by tracking them properly.

�It will either allay everyone�s fears and show that we don�t have a problem,� she added, �or it will show we have a problem so that we can act accordingly.�

Richardson describes the volunteers� efforts as �only in their infancy.� They are continuing to collect signatures, and are asking for the public�s help wherever people gather in Vermillion, from restaurants and coffee shops to churches.

People interested in signing a petition may find one at Barista�s Brew, Coffee Shop Gallery, Nook �n Cranny, Civic Council, Hy-Vee, Fullerton�s and Dr. Jim Green�s office.

�We hope to accomplish a heightened awareness here,� Richardson said. �If we can identify a possible problem and alert people, we save lives. Knowledge is power and gaining knowledge means saving people�s lives.

�No one wants children to die,� she added. �Who wouldn�t want to save a child?�

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