David Allan Cohen, 64, passed away in December 2017 following a 19-month battle with a glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a rare and aggressive brain cancer. A resident of the White Oak neighborhood in Silver Spring, Maryland, Cohen was diagnosed the day after the burial of his neighbor, Fred Mailman, who had died from the same type of cancer.
“The exact same thing, and he lives across the street. It’s strange,” said Cohen’s widow, Laurie. She shared the names of other neighbors who currently have cancer, including three people on the same street with melanoma.
Discussions with neighbors led residents to contact the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). In response to their concerns that the community is a “cancer cluster” (a geographic area with a statistically higher than average occurrence of cancer over a limited period of time), the DHHS held a public conversation on the subject at the Silver Spring Civic Center on Wednesday, March 28.
Dr. Chunfu Liu, chief epidemiologist for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, told the gathering that Montgomery County rates are “consistently lower” in cancers of the lung, colon and rectum, breast, prostate, and skin when compared to numbers in the rest of the state and throughout the U.S.
However, Liu also said cancer is the leading cause of mortality in Montgomery County, accounting for 24 percent of deaths.
The cause of a cancer “is difficult to prove,” she said, because many cancers don’t start producing symptoms for many years, sometimes decades. It’s also difficult to determine if an area is a cancer cluster unless a specific hazard is found in the water or soil. Lui emphasized behavioral risk factors for cancer such as smoking, excessive drinking, an unhealthy diet, and a lack of activity; but she also pointed out there are more than 100 types of cancer and each has a different makeup of risk factors, from genetic to environmental to occupational.
“People are now living longer, and as they live longer, cancer becomes more frequent,” said Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the Environmental Health Bureau of the Maryland Department of Health. “This is why it seems like more people are dying from cancer now,” he said.
A cancer cluster does not necessarily mean a lot of people in the area are cancer patients, Mitchell said. Rather, the cancer diagnoses in one area must all be of the same type, or found in an unusual group; for instance, if many young people have a form of cancer normally found in the elderly.
Still, Cohen can’t help wondering why her husband and neighbor died of the same disease.
“The first instinct we all had was, is there something in the water? It’s scary,” said resident Julie Black.
“We are dealing with a lot of sadness, a lot of sickness,” said Chani Feldman, a local registered nurse.
Some wondered if the nearby U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center on New Hampshire Avenue was to blame. It is a Superfund Site but is not scheduled for any clean up. However, if some chemicals did leak into the ground and water, then an increase in one type of cancer would be expected.
So far, neighbors have not discovered any link, which was why they turned to county officials. The county and the state collect data from doctors and hospitals, but those data sets are at least two or three years old. Additionally, the database is local to that area, so it only includes those who currently live there.
Health officials at the March 28 event stressed that the best way to avoid cancer is to reduce risk factors, eat a healthy diet, exercise, and go to the doctor for regular cancer screenings.
By Suzanne Pollak
Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.