9/11 & STUDENT CANCERS

Alexandra Jorge and Michele Lent Hirsch returned to their schools blocks from Ground Zero just weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Years later they were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which they connect to the toxins they were exposed to.

Michele has since written a book on the challenges she and other young women with diagnoses face, titled “Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine”.

Aired on January 26, 2018; September 11, 2018 & August 30, 2019.

TRANSCRIPT

> A NEW CANCER CLUSTER IS BELIEVED TO BE EMERGING FROM TOXINS FROM GROUND ZERO.

THE VICTIMS, HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE STUDENTS WHO RETURNED TO THEIR CLASSROOMS JUST WEEKS AFTER THE 9/11 ATTACKS.

TODAY WAS THE FIRST TIME THAT ALEX AND MICHELLE HAD MET, THEIR STUDIES AND CAREERS HAD TAKEN THEM IN DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS, BUT THEIR STORIES INTERTWINE.

BOTH OF THEM WENT TO SCHOOL NEAR 9/11 AND THEY HAVE BOTH BEEN FORCED TO DEAL WITH A LIFE CHANGING DIAGNOSIS.

I WAS DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER WHEN I WAS 28 YEARS OLD.

I HAD JUST MOVED OUT TO CALIFORNIA FOR GRAD SCHOOL, I WAS DEVASTATED BY MY DIAGNOSIS, IT WAS COMPLETELY UNEXPECTED, I WAS BLIND SIDED BY IT.

IT WAS JUST A SIGNIFICANT TIME IN MY LIFE.

I WAS AWAY FROM MY FAMILY, MY FRIENDS, MY WHOLE SUPPORT NET NETWORK, WHICH TURNS OUT TO BE VERY IMPORTANT FOR SOMEONE WITH CANCER.

I WAS DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER WHEN I WAS 25, AND IT WAS ALSO THROUGH JUST A ROUTINE CHECKUP WHERE THE DOCTOR JUST HAPPENED TO FEEL MY NECK, YOU KNOW, TO FEEL MY LYMPH NODES AND IT WAS COMPLETELY UNEXPECT AND BEING A YOUNG PERSON, WHEN ALL YOUR FRIENDS ARE OUT LIVING THEIR LIVES AND STARTING THEIR CAREERS IT'S SORT OF HARD TO CONFRONT MORTALITY AT SUCH A YOUNG AGE.

ALEX WAS A SENIOR AT PACE UNIVERSITY WHEN THE TOWERS FELL AND WAS INITIALLY UNAWARE THAT THERE COULD BE A CONNECTION BETWEEN HER CANCER DIAGNOSIS AND THE TOXINS SHE WAS EXPOSE TO.

FOR MICHELLE, THE CONNECTION WAS IMMEDIATE.

RICH ALLEY IS A LAWYER ASSISTING MICHELLE AND ALEX.

HE SERVED AS A BATTALION CHIEF ON 9/11.

IN THE EARLY DAYS, THERE WAS JUST A CLOUD OF HAZE AND SORT OF LIKE A SNOWSTORM, YOU KNOW, JUST THE AIR, IT WAS VERY DIFFICULT TO BREATHE, WE DIDN'T HAVE PROPER BREATHING APPARATUS, EVERYONE WAS USING PAPER MASKS THAT WOULD JUST CLOG UP AND YOU WOULD JUST GET RID OF IT.

I CAN HEAR YOU!

I CAN HEAR YOU, THE REST OF THE WORLD HEARS YOU, AND THE PEOPLE -- [ CHEERS AND APPLAUSE ] AND THE PEOPLE WHO KNOCKED THESE BUILDINGS DOWN WILL HEAR ALL OF US SOON.

AS A FIRST RESPONDER, I KNEW THAT THE RISKS THAT WE WERE TAKING, DEALING WITH THE TOXIC EXPOSURE, BUT THAT WAS SOMETHING I HAD SIGNED ON FOR.

AND THE WEEKS FOLLOWING, YOU JUST REALIZED, THERE WAS A VIVID SMELL, YOU KNEW THAT THE AIR WAS NOT SAFE TO BREATHE.

STIVERSON HIGH SCHOOL WAS USED AS A COMMAND CENTER FOR THE FIRST RESPONDERS DURING THE WEEKS FOLLOWING 9/11.

THE SCHOOL REOPENED TO STUDENTS LESS THAN A MONTH LATER.

I DEFINITELY REMEMBER THE SMELL, SORT OF AN ACRID CHEMICAL SMELL THAT WAS ALL THROUGHOUT LOWER MANHATTAN.

WALKING FROM THE SUBWAY TO THE HIGH SCHOOL, I REMEMBER THINKING THIS SMELL IS SMELLS LIKE SOMETHING WE SHOULD NOT BE BREATHING IN.

THEY WERE DUMPING THE DEBRIS FROM THE WORLD TRADE CENTER, TO ME THAT'S ONE OF THE MOST VISCERAL MEMORIES IS THE SOUND OF MANGLED METAL FROM A BUILDING WHERE WE HAD WATCHED PEOPLE DIE BEING DUMPED INTO A BARGE AND IT WOULD KICK UP ALL THIS DUST AND WE WOULD HEAR THE SOUND AND WE WOULD HAVE TO THINK EVERY SINGLE TIME THAT WE HAD SEEN THE TOWERS FALL.

AND RIGHT NEXT TO US THEY WERE PUTTING THE DEBRIS IN THE BAR J

MICHELLE WAS A MINOR AT THE TIME WITH NO DECISION MAKING ABILITY OF HER OWN.

THEY DIDN'T HAVE A CHOICE.

IN FACT THEY WERE TOLD THE AIR IS SAFE.

THOSE WERE THE FAMOUS WORDS OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, WHOSE LEADER FORGOT HER MISSION WHICH IS PROTECTION.

IT'S THE MIDDLE WORD THERE.

WE'RE GOING TO CONTINUE TO MONITOR, BUT RIGHT NOW I TELL YOU EVERYTHING WE'RE GETTING BACK FROM THE SAMPLING THAT WE'RE DOING IS BELOW BACKGROUND LEVELS.

THERE IS NOT A REASON FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC TO BE CONCERNED.

IT'S NOT GOING TO BE A PARTICULAR HAZARD UNLESS YOU HAVE BREATHING DIFFICULTIES.

AND INSTEAD, THEY SAID THE EXACT OPPOSITE, COME BACK TO SCHOOL, COME BACK TO WALL STREET, EVERYTHING IS OKAY.

AND UNFORTUNATELY, THEY REALLY LET THE PUBLIC DOWN.

MICHAEL WAS INFLUENTIAL IN THE PASSING OF THE LEGISLATION THAT ESTABLISHED THE WORLD TRADE CENTER HEALTH PROGRAM, COVERING THE COST OF MEDICAL CARE FOR THOSE WHO WERE EXPOSE TO TOXIC FUMES, DUST AND SMOKE AND LATER BECAME SICK.

FOR MICHELLE AND ALEX, THAT'S LED TO A VERY PARTICULAR TYPE OF TREATMENT TO DESTROY THE CANCER CELLS.

I HAD RADIOACTIVE IODINE TREATMENT.

IT ACTUALLY MAKES YOU RADIOACTIVE AND YOU HAVE TO BE QUARANTINED AND IT IS NOT ONLY PHYSICALLY VERY FRIGHTENING TO SIGN A PIECE OF PAPER, SAYING I ALLOW THIS DOCTOR TO PURPOSELY CONTAMINATE ME AND MAKE ME RADIOACTIVE, BUT PSYCHOLOGICALLY THE TOLL THAT QUARANTINE TAKES YOU ON IS QUITE SEVERE.

THE ISOLATION PIECE WHEN YOU TAKE THE RADIOACTIVE IODINE, THAT WAS DEVASTATING TO SAY THE LEAST.

I MEAN, YOU CAN'T INTERACT WITH HUMAN BEINGS, YOU HAVE TO BE BY YOURSELF, TAKE CARE OF ALL YOUR NEEDS BY YOURSELF AND, YOU KNOW, YOU DON'T -- YOU CAN'T EVEN BE AROUND YOUR LOVED ONES WHO ARE THERE TO SUPPORT YOU, SO THAT WAS TERRIBLE.

I MEAN IT DEFINITELY LED TO ABSOLUTELY A DEPRESSIVE EPISODE.

MEDICAL EXPERTS ARE CONFIDENT THAT THESE CANCERS CAN BE DIRECTLY TIED TO TOXIN EXPOSURE AND THAT THE PROBLEM IS ONLY LIKELY TO INCREASE IN THE YEARS AHEAD.

THIS IS A CANCER CLUSTER RELATED TO THE 9/11 EXPOSURE, BUT THIS IS THE FIRST CANCERS WE'RE GOING TO SEE BECAUSE THERE IS A VERY LONG LAG TIME BETWEEN WHEN YOU'RE EXPOSE BETWEEN A CARS KNOW AGAIN.

WE'LL SEE A LOT MORE CANCERS RELATED TO THE EVENT.

DR. GANDER ALSO ASSESSES THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT A CANCER DIAGNOSIS CAN HAVE AT SUCH A YOUNG AGE.

YOU'RE HAVING TO THINK ABOUT, GOSH, WILL I EVEN HAVE KIDS OF MY OWN AND WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THEIR RISK OF HAVING CANCER.

SO I THINK IT IS A BIT OF A DIFFERENT THING WHEN SOMEONE THAT YOUNG IS DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER WITHOUT HAVING HAD A CHANCE TO START A LIFE, A CAREER.

BOTH MICHELLE AND ALEX ARE NOW IN REMISSION.

THEIR EXPERIENCES HAVE HAD A SIGNIFICANT IMPACT ON THEIR CAREER PATHS.

ALEX OVERSEES RESEARCH AT UCLA LOOKING INTO THE LINK BETWEEN CANCER AND DEPRESSION.

YOU BASICALLY PURSUED CAREERS IN JOURNALISM AND THE MEDICAL FIELD LOOKING AT PSYCHOLOGY OF THE DIAGNOSIS.

SO WHAT IMPACT HAS YOUR OWN DIAGNOSIS HAD ON YOUR LIFE.

CANCER IS PRETTY TERRIBLE AT ANY AGE, BUT WE WERE BOTH IN OUR EARLY 20s OR MID 20s AND YOU CAN'T GET THAT YOUTH BACK.

YOU KNOW?

IT'S AN AGE WHERE YOU'VE BEEN PROMISED SORT OF EASE AND THAT IT WOULD GET HARDER AS YOU GOT OLDER AND WE KIND OF BOTH GOT HIT WITH SOMETHING MUCH SOONER THAN A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE AND YOU CAN'T GET THAT BACK, UNFORTUNATELY.

I MEAN IT DEFINITELY CHANGES YOUR LIFE TRAJECTORY, YOU KNOW, IT MADE ME QUESTION MY FUTURE, MY FERTILITY, WHAT CANCER TREATMENTS WOULD DO TO MY BODY AT SUCH A YOUNG AGE, I'M ALSO TAKING THYROID MEDICATION FOR LIFE AND A YOUNG PERSON SHOULDN'T HAVE TO TAKE MEDICATION FOR LIFE.

A YOUNG PERSON SHOULDN'T HAVE TO DEAL WITH CANCER IN THEIR EARLY 20s, BUT YOU DO, YOU MOVE ON AND YOU JUST DEAL WITH IT.

BUT IT'S CHANGED MY LIFE COMPLETELY.

FOR ALEX, A RAY OF LIGHT AT THE END OF A DIFFICULT, DARK TUNNEL.

LAST YEAR, NINE YEARS AFTER HER CANCER DIAGNOSIS, SHE AND HER HUSBAND COLLIN GAVE BIT TO A NEW CHILD, A DAUGHTER NAMED ROSE MILLER.

IT BECAME APPARENT THAT THIS ISN'T A MATTER OF BLAME.

FOR THEM IT'S IMPORTANT TO RAISE AWARENESS AND ENSURE THAT OTHER STUDENTSES WHO MAY HAVE BEEN EXPOSE TO TOXINS REMAIN VIGILANT AND GET SCREENED REGULARLY BY THEIR PHYSICIANS.

Funders

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