Tuesday, May 17, 2016

To Combat the Fallout in Coldwater Creek, Victims and Neighbors Turn to Art — and Community

Posted By on Tue, May 17, 2016 at 7:00 AM

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Kerry Huffines, a former Coldwater Creek resident, would like to see Simes’ dance, but when she spoke with the Riverfront Times in March she wasn’t certain she’d be able to make it―not because of a schedule conflict, but because she had already outlived her doctor’s prognosis by several months.

“I’m not done. I have a lot to live for. I want to see my daughter grow up,” Huffines says.

When Huffines was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix more than five years ago, “We actually thought we were pregnant.” Since then, she’s opted against chemotherapy and undergone seventeen surgeries. “My stomach is like Swiss cheese,” she adds.

click to enlarge The number of rare appendix cancers reported by people in North County exceeds normal. - COLDWATER CREEK FACTS
  • Coldwater Creek Facts
  • The number of rare appendix cancers reported by people in North County exceeds normal.
No treatment patterns are fully known for her condition because it’s incredibly rare. She was told at the time that the disorder was one in one million, although it’s much more common now.

The frequency of this particular cancer is what set off warning bells for many: nearly 50 cases have been self-reported by people who grew up near Coldwater Creek. According to Dr. Faisal Khan, director of St. Louis County Department of Public Health, there are only about 1,000 cases nationwide each year. In a journal article published last December, Khan calls this incidence rate one of several “huge red flags.”

Huffines has hung on in part by wanting to live her life, but also by embracing religion. “I just wouldn’t be anywhere without my faith,” she says. She says she lives knowing that what happens to her is in God’s hands.

click to enlarge Huffines' dog also has cancer. - KATELYN MAE PETRIN
  • Katelyn Mae Petrin
  • Huffines' dog also has cancer.
And despite everything, she says, she’s thankful for every day. “Through it all I’ve never felt more love and support and unity from the people who are going through this. There’s just a common bond.”

Recently, Visintine — a childhood friend of Huffines — put her in touch with a woman, Patricia Barry, who had more recently been diagnosed with the same cancer. Barry opted for chemotherapy, which they treated as if her disease was colon cancer, because the doctors otherwise didn’t know what protocol to use. For Barry, that went well. “Basically, I am a case study,” she says.

Both women say that the cancer has taken a lot from their families, but that they draw hope by investing in their children. But even though she moved to Chesterfield fifteen years ago, Barry fears for her family. Sometimes when she takes her four children out, she wonders, “What are they playing in?”

That’s one reason Huffines wants to see more education and faster cleanup. “There are kids now sleeping in our old bedrooms with this stuff right outside. It’s gotta get cleaned up. People have got to do something to help the people that are still facing this.”

click to enlarge Kim Huffines (stripes) and Kim Thone Visitine (front) playing together as children in Florissant. - KERRY THONE VISITINE
  • Kerry Thone Visitine
  • Kim Huffines (stripes) and Kim Thone Visitine (front) playing together as children in Florissant.
And both women remember playing in the creek as children. “I think probably anyone you talk to from north county — honestly, we just had a lot of fun. We just enjoyed being outside being scruffy kids being dirty,” says Huffines. She tries to keep those memories separate from her life now, because, she says, she doesn’t want them tainted.

Barry emphasizes that she wishes she had known better than to make those memories in the first place. “It wasn’t a choice for me to get cancer. I played in a creek and got cancer. The weirdest cancer that no one gets. But I did,” she says. “I should’ve been told.”

Many residents have filed lawsuits, but the process has been slow. Currently, hundreds of litigants hold out hope for a case filed by an Edwardsville-based firm, Tor Hoerman Law. They’re suing Mallinckrodt and a Colorado company responsible for spreading the waste throughout North County.

Janet Davis is one woman involved with that case. In October, her husband, Charlie — who used to work for Mallinckrodt — died of colon cancer. Like many, she has no idea if Coldwater Creek has anything to do with her husband’s illness, but she would like answers.

They didn’t find out about “this Coldwater Creek thing,” she says, until her husband was accepted into a study that examined chemotherapy patients at Barnes Jewish Hospital. Like others, she worries that her children could have been exposed.

Now Davis just hopes that someone will have to answer for their actions. “If this is related to [Coldwater Creek],” she says, she wants “for whoever who is responsible to held accountable and responsible for. And that goes all the way back to the people who dumped the crap wherever they dumped it.”

She compares the situation to a break-in: you don’t let someone break into a house just because they have esteem.

“It doesn’t have a damn thing to do with a dime. It’s got more to do with what’s right and what’s wrong,” Davis explains. “You can give me $50 million and it ain’t bringing my husband back. You can give me all the money on the planet―you can give me the planet, and it won’t bring my husband back.”

By fighting back, by raising awareness, by turning their suffering into art, these  survivors ultimately hope that no one will have to suffer the way their families have. Huffines marvels when she thinks back on how it all began: “I was twelve years old, happy as can be, but being pummeled by radioactive waste.”

Editor's note: This story was edited after publication to remove one detail about a woman who'd suffered from brain cancer. We also corrected the misspelling of one name. We regret the error.

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