#513: Spinning the ABC breast cancer cluster
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It seems that the bigger a cancer cluster is in Australia the bigger the claims of it being just a statistical aberration, a nasty coincidence or even bad karma (it’s your own fault). And of course we always get the same old spiel that, whenever EMF is a possibility, all is fine as the fields are well within the current guidelines set down by ICNIRP and its predessessors. This is the line given by ABC Queensland editor Fiona Crawford in 2005 when the ABC studios breast cancer cluster at Toowong, Qld. first hit the media. Crawford then stated that “all frequency fields were found to be within the standards set down by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency”. This assurance came from EMC Technologies, the usual “independent” testing company in Australia who can be trusted to always refer to ICNIRP, or its predecessors, as the reference point for acceptability.
With the RMIT brain tumour controversy (ongoing) EMC Tech. choose to use the trusty old NH&MRC ELF-EMF guideline (read ICNIRP) limit of 1000mG as an acceptable level in relation to brain tumours. By using this high limit what is the use of even bothering to take measurements as the outcome is preordained anyway? Why not just have a standard official looking certificate with lots of impressive coloured scroll work with just a box to fill in with the address of the building to be evaluated – something like what the old Andeluvian Order Of Buffaloes Lodge used to issue to new members. No need to waste time doing a survey with expensive meters. Just an impressive certificate stating that all EMF levels in the building are within ICNIRP’s “health based” limits and therefore no EMF related health hazards exist. Perhaps the certificate could come in a nice frame to hang on the wall. This would also come in handy for people trying to sell homes next to transmission lines. Prospective buyers worried about health problems? Nonsense, just look at this certificate!
This all makes about as much public health sense as setting the road speed limit to 1000 kph and then using speed cameras to catch any speedsters.
Now perhaps the EMF levels at the ABC Toowong studios are quite low (still to be determined) but just making dismissive statements to the public that give the impression that ICNIRP limits somehow protect against cancer is a devious deception. Far more honest for all concerned if any reference to ICNIRP or NH&MRC limits were qualified with the following:
“These limits represent plausible field values, below which immediate adverse health effects are unlikely, and as such serve a useful purpose. They are not intended to provide protection against possible cancer induction by continued exposure at the lower field levels implicated in the studies.”
(Australian Radiation Laboratory, 1991)
The hardest news
How Karen Milliner reported on the cluster of cancer cases at the ABC, Brisbane, in Qweekend, October 15 last year
July 08, 2006
EVERY woman’s nightmare became harsh reality at the Brisbane home of everyone’s ABC – and returned again and again to deliver dread, suffering and, paradoxically, binding friendship.
There was no lump that she could feel, no other physical symptoms to cause disquiet. Jo-Anne Youngleson was 31, well outside the age group most at risk, and in top physical shape, training to run a half marathon. There was no reason for this vibrant young journalist, who’d worked for ABC television and radio in Brisbane for about six years, to suspect that rogue cells in her body had multiplied out of control and turned cancerous.
But in March this year she was told that they had. Shock, disbelief, fear: her reactions were those of women everywhere when they first hear those chilling words: “You have breast cancer”.
Yet Youngleson also considers herself lucky: her cancer was caught early, her prognosis is excellent. And it was caught early because of her unease at the fact that at least ten other women in as many years at the ABC TV and radio studios in the inner-west suburbof Toowong had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Among the women were weekend TV news presenter Lisa Backhouse (35 when diagnosed in July last year); TV news operations assistant Margaret Stewart (also diagnosed last year, aged 60); former TV and radio, now online, journalist Nadia Farha (diagnosed 2002, aged 35); TV news operations assistant Dee Jenno (2001, aged 45); radio producer Anne Debert (1998, aged 43); and TV producer’s assistant Debra (who asked that her surname not be used), 34 when diagnosed in 1994.
“For weeks after,” says Backhouse of being delivered the grim news, “you wake up in the morning and the first thing you think is, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got cancer’. There’s that disbelief that goes along with it. And the fear that is so real, you can almost taste it. It stays with you.”
Farha concurs. “It’s a hard thing to get your head around. It’s such an overwhelming experience, physically and mentally. But you fight, it’s just instinctive, you do it to survive. You don’t just lie down and take it and say, ‘this is the end’.”
After Backhouse learned of her cancer, Youngleson felt sufficiently concerned about her own health to have a general check-up. “I was told not to worry about a mammogram, you’re too young, you’re not in any kind of risk factor group.” But then, in February this year, yet another woman was diagnosed: a 41-year-old TV producer.
Youngleson immediately called the Wesley Breast Clinic to make an appointment for a mammogram, and then pleaded with her doctor “for my peace of mind” for the necessary referral.
The mammogram revealed calcifications, flecks of calcium like grains of salt. A biopsy confirmed cancer. “It floored me,” Youngleson says. “The doctors said to me I probably wouldn’t have felt a lump or anything for up to two years. If it wasn’t for the women at work, if it wasn’t for what was happening there, I would never have gone (for a mammogram).”
Her diagnosis, coming so soon after her producer colleague’s, sent shockwaves through the ABC.
“These were not strangers, these were friends and colleagues,” says Backhouse, who at the time had been back at work for only a few weeks after her own cancer ordeal. “Jo had filled in for me when I was having treatment, so that was very difficult. I love my job, I love what I do, and I wanted to get back to my life after being away and sick for such a long time. To go back and have to relive it with close colleagues and friends was devastating for me.”
TO THE lay observer it’s extraordinary: 11 predominantly young women in 11 years at the one workplace struck down by breast cancer. Five of them sat at the production desk in the ABC’s TV newsroom, while another two at various times occupied desks close by. (The other women worked elsewhere on the 1.5 hectare Toowong site.) “When you talk to friends outside of work and say, ‘Yeah, I’m one of the 11’, the reaction is, ‘Oh my God’,” says Dee Jenno.
Beth Newman, a professor of public health at Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Health Research, whose specialist interest is breast cancer epidemiology, also finds the spate of cases extraordinary. “It is shocking and it certainly seems like a cancer cluster,” Professor Newman says. “The incidence of breast cancer (nationally) has been increasing one to two per cent a year for some time, but that doesn’t seem to be disproportionate to younger women. And as common as breast cancer is, the lifelong risk is one in 11, so that means ten out of every 11 women never get breast cancer in their lives.”
Could the ABC cases be a horrible coincidence, a statistical aberration, or is there something sinister at play? In the air-conditioning, the water, the soil beneath the buildings? Or maybe it’s something to do with the electromagnetic and radiofrequency (RF) fields generated by the plethora of communications equipment on the site: the seven-metre satellite dish on the roof of the television building, the radio tower bedecked with antennas?
These are questions ABC staff started asking last year when Stewart and Backhouse were diagnosed. Anxiety grew when Youngleson and her colleague’s cancers became known this year.
“Our main concern,” says Youngleson, “was that we wanted to make sure that it was a safe environment to work in.”
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance,the union that represents journalists and broadcasters, sought to have ABC staff involved in determining appropriate investigations into the workplace. “They wanted to have confidence in the process and confidence in the outcome,” says the MEAA’s Queensland secretary, David Waters.
In March, the ABC commissioned an independent engineering company to survey the RF and electromagnetic fields in the TV newsroom and elsewhere on the site. ABC state editor Fiona Crawford says all frequency fields were found to be within the standards set down by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.
Breast cancer information sessions were held, and counselling was made available for all staff as part of the corporation’s ongoing program. ABC management also proposed an epidemiological survey by an occupational physician but this was put on hold after Queensland Health began its own inquiries.
The women involved met with public health officials, who have inspected the Toowong studios.
A Queensland Health spokeswoman said details would not be disclosed until the investigation was completed, which would be “as soon as possible”.
It’s unclear whether this has been classed as an official cancer cluster. Although the broad definition used by Queensland Health and authorities worldwide appears relatively simple – “a greater than expected number of cases of a particular disease within a group of people, a geographical area, or a period of time” – determining a cluster involves a complicated statistical analysis.
As to a possible link between breast cancer and exposure to electromagnetic and RF fields, that is still a grey area for scientists. “Exposure to electromagnetic fields is what we call a putative risk factor, a possible risk factor of breast cancer because the evidence is a little bit uneven,” says QUT’s Beth Newman. “It can’t be dismissed as a possibility but it is not considered an established risk factor. It’s a tricky exposure to study, because it’s everywhere. You might assume that women in this sort of workplace might be exposed to higher levels on average, but electromagnetic fields are everywhere, in lights at night, mobile phones, computers.”
Newman says the complicated nature of breast cancer also is problematic for researchers. “Breast cancer is not one disease, it’s actually many different diseases that all manifest as uncontrolled cell growth in the breast. We have a long list of established risk factors for breast cancer, and we can tell you how much they increase and decrease risk on a population basis, but once you get down to individual women you cannot say what in their life caused their breast cancer.”
But Newman believes that a lack of a scientific explanation should not always preclude action.
“Even though I can’t think of anything that would adequately explain why (the ABC studios) is a toxic environment, or how it could be a toxic environment, I think it is perfectly reasonable to consider addressing concerns even in the absence of evidence. We have to recognise the limits of science and be honest about them. I think sometimes we just have to say ‘we can’t explain it’, but why not err on the side of caution and take action even in the absence of evidence? Prudence over proof.”
THOSE WHO report the news are rarely comfortable being in the spotlight themselves, as newsmakers rather than news breakers. But seven of the ABC women agreed to talk to Qweekend about their experiences to raise awareness of breast cancer.
After Jo-Anne Youngleson’s cancer was discovered in March she had two operations, the second to remove lymph nodes under her arm, then six and a half weeks of radiation treatment. During a follow-up mammogram another small lump was found, and later removed. “There are times I look at myself now, and I look at my scars, and I can’t believe it actually happened,” she says.
Cancer sabotaged Youngleson’s plans for this year. She and husband Paul Stone had intended to start a family; instead, she has a new job with Channel Seven in Melbourne. She signs off her on-air reports as Jo Stone, adopting her married name to mark this new chapter in her life. Children still figure in her plans, but they’ll have to wait for a few years until she finishes taking the anti-cancer drug Zoladex.
“I think my case goes to show how important early diagnosis is,” she says. “You do have to keep a close eye on yourself and listen to your body. Just make sure you don’t ignore any little symptoms, any lump.”
Lisa Backhouse did not ignore the lump in her breast. She had it investigated on several occasions over a number of years, but each time her concerns were allayed. Then, on July 1 last year, she was told the lump had turned cancerous. After surgery she began a taxing six-month regimen of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Backhouse, now 36, joined the ABC as a cadet when she was 19, left for a stint in commercial TV, then rejoined the public broadcaster eight years ago. When she returned from her treatment to our TV screens early this year it was with a wig styled into a short bob: the chemo had robbed her of her locks. But they’ve grown back more lustrous, and curlier, than before, and she jokes that her hair requires serious taming to achieve a suitably smooth on-air style.
She has made many changes to her life, including what she calls her “tree change”, a move with husband Mark and their two boys, Michael, 9, and Curtis, 7, from a suburban home to one that backs on to bushland on Brisbane’s outskirts.
“(Cancer) really does change your whole perspective, your sense of self, and your sense of future. It makes you take stock and appreciate all the blessings that you have. That, for me, is the good that has come out of it. I feel that I live every day now.”
IT WAS while showering that Nadia Farha first felt a lump in her breast, but she wasn’t overly alarmed: “I thought it was probably a benign hormonal thing that would go away.” She also viewed breast cancer as an “older women’s disease”, not something likely to strike a 35-year-old.
When the lump was still there a couple of months later, she brought it to her doctor’s attention during a routine check-up. A biopsy revealed cancer. “I shouldn’t have left it that long, I should have had it checked out sooner,” she says. “I had three operations. After the first one, they had to go back and take out the lymph nodes. The cancer had gone into one lymph node and the tests showed that the margins weren’t clear in the breast, so then they did a mastectomy, and at the time I had a (breast) reconstruction as well.”
Farha, now 38, describes the chemotherapy that followed as “hellish”. “I lost my hair, I had to have a blood transfusion every month because my blood cell counts would drop. I had to give myself an injection in the stomach every day to try to keep up the white cell count. I was in hospital with infections three times.”
At the time it was not for herself that she fretted the most, it was for her children, Dominic, now 10, and Gabrielle, 7. “They didn’t cope with my hair falling out. I couldn’t walk around without anything on my head at home because it really freaked them out.”
Farha joined the ABC in 1989 and has spent most of her time at the Toowong facility in various roles in radio and TV before moving to online about six years ago. “I don’t have qualms about being here,” she says, gazing across the rooftops of the ABC buildings from the lawn near the entrance. “I don’t drive in every day and think, ‘Oh, is this place killing me?’ My prognosis is pretty good, but with breast cancer you never know. It could come back in ten years or 20 years. You do have your moments, where you think maybe it will come back, and what do I do if it does? But then you just put it out of your mind and get on with life.”
SEVEN YEARS ago Anne Debert was 43 – too young, she thought, to be screened for breast cancer: “I’d always thought you should start having mammograms at 50.” It was only when she organised a morning radio interview at the Wesley Breast Clinic for an on-air presenter that she learnt that women are advised to start mammogram screening at the age of 40. A month later, she read in the local paper that a mobile screening clinic would be in her neighbourhood, so made an appointment.
The mammogram picked up her cancer. “A shock? Oh yes, huge, huge,” she says. “It was, my God, if I hadn’t gone on that interview I would have left it until who knows when.” The mother of four had two operations, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and took the anti-cancer drug Tamoxifen for five years. “I kept working for the majority of time. I could have taken off as much time as I wanted but I found it helped me to stay at work. Otherwise you’d sit at home feeling revolting and think about it.”
Debert joined the ABC at the end of 1986 and has always worked in radio. She hadn’t had a great deal of contact with some of her TV colleagues, beyond a quick hello in the corridors, until hearing of their battles with breast cancer. She now shares with them a desire to raise awareness.
After Dee Jenno had a small lump removed from her breast four years ago, it was discovered that the lump itself was clear of cancer but not the surrounding tissue. The mother of two and a news operations assistant with the ABC since 1982 had experienced swelling and soreness in her breast a few months prior. An ultrasound and needle biopsy showed nothing untoward, she was prescribed antibiotics and urged to return when the swelling had settled to have a mammogram, which she did. A lump showed up on the X-ray, it was removed and the surrounding cancerous tissue discovered. Jenno, now 49, had further surgery followed by radiation therapy.
“I’ll never forget my daughter, who was about 14 then, saying to me, ‘Does this mean I’ll get breast cancer when I’m older?’ I said to her, ‘I can’t say yes and I can’t say no but the important thing is that you’re educated and you will be checked from an earlier age’.”
Around the time of Jenno’s diagnosis, fellow news operations assistant Margaret Stewart, then in her mid-fifties, went for a routine mammogram. A small lump was investigated but was given the all-clear. A routine mammogram last year revealed another lump; this one proved to be cancerous. It was removed and she underwent radiation treatment.
Another of Jenno and Stewart’s colleagues and a close friend, Debra, a producer’s assistant who joined the ABC in 1979, was 34 when her cancer was detected. It was 1994, and she woke in the night and felt a lump in her breast. In the morning she could not locate it but instinct warned her to get it checked. A needle biopsy after a mammogram and an ultrasound confirmed cancer.
“I just broke down,” Debra recalls. “It was only a couple of months after my father dying of cancer and getting my mother, who had bowel cancer, out of the hospital.” She underwent two operations and radiation treatment. Physically she was fine but she bottled up her fears and anxiety. “No-one spoke of breast cancer back then, and I didn’t know how to talk about it,” she says. “You just felt you had to get over it and get on with it.
“But there’s a difference between getting over it and going into denial, which is what I did. Down the track it will catch up with you. Doesn’t matter how strong you think you are. There’s a certain process you have to go through emotionally and psychologically to deal with it.”
ALTHOUGH JO-ANNE Youngleson has a new job in a new state, she has not lost touch with her former ABC colleagues. “These are women I worked closely with for four or five years, and I drew strength from them,” she says. “We conferred on doctors and surgeons and on new drugs and different kinds of treatment. It was very helpful for me and I’m very grateful for their support.” She also shares with them realistic expectations about what, if anything, Queensland Health’s investigation will uncover.
“As a journalist you look at it and think, there’s got to be something more here. But there might not be anything more. It might just be a horrible coincidence. I don’t think we’re going to find a smoking gun because we don’t know what causes breast cancer. But if there is a link between all of us, we might be able to help researchers find a cure.
“There might be something very small here that links us which, combined with a study done in Sweden or America or somewhere, might help solve the puzzle. If we can help somebody in the future, it’s worth it.”
BREAST CANCER FACTS
Age is a big factor, it’s not necessarily fatal but an unusual lump should not be ignored.
One in 11 women in Australia will be diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 75. In 2001, 11,791 women in Australia were diagnosed. That year, 2594 women died of breast cancer, which is the biggest cause of cancer-related death in Australian women. However, death rates are falling due to greater awareness, early detection and better treatment.
The cancer can occur at any age, although the risk increases for women as they get older. About 75 per cent of new cases diagnosed are in women 50 years and older.
Age is the biggest risk factor; others are: family history of breast cancer; inherited abnormalities in genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2; starting menstruation before age of 12; starting menopause after age of 55; not having children or having a first child after age of 35; not breastfeeding; taking combined HRT after menopause; excess weight gain as adult; alcohol consumption; taking oral contraceptive pill (risk occurs during period of taking pill). One or more risk factors does not mean that a woman will develop breast cancer.
Mammograms are available free for women 40 years and over through BreastScreen Queensland: phone 13 20 50 or visit www.health.qld.gov.au
More information or assistance: National Breast Cancer Centre, www.nbcc.org.au, and Cancer Council Cancer Helpline, 13 11 20.
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