Grand Forks woman wants North Dakota to check for 'cancer cluster'

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - A woman promoting awareness of childhood leukemia wants health officials to investigate a possible "cancer cluster" in Grand Forks County.

Cancer cluster?
Ali Borgen, center, looks at a radiation mask that she wore during her treatments for cancer while her mom, Karen Borgen, right, and Kristen Abner compare notes on a possible cancer cluster in the area. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - A woman promoting awareness of childhood leukemia wants health officials to investigate a possible "cancer cluster" in Grand Forks County.

Kristen Abner of Grand Forks says she's identified at least nine children diagnosed in the past three years with leukemia. Two of the children have died.

State health officials say they're still collecting data. A review of available figures from 1997 to 2006 suggested nothing out of the ordinary.

Marlys Knell of the North Dakota Cancer Registry says it takes time to get the figures together and parents' permission is needed to get the records.

"Maybe there is something out there," she said.


The 10-year review was done after another Grand Forks resident - Karen Borgen, mother of leukemia survivor Ali Borgen, 13 - asked for help in getting a governor's proclamation issued declaring September to be childhood cancer awareness month.

"We looked at numbers for the United States, North Dakota and Grand Forks County," said Alice Musumba, an epidemiologist with the state Health Department. "We did not find rates or anything that would cause concern."

Knell said the Grand Forks situation isn't the first time someone has suggested the possibility of a cancer cluster in the state.

"We have had concerns brought to us, but nothing has panned out," she said. "With a small population, everybody knows everybody, so we know people with cancer."

Don Shields, public health director for Grand Forks, said that he routinely asks state health officials about unusual statistical trends they may have seen for the county, and there has been no concern expressed about unusual childhood leukemia numbers.

"This has not come up," he said Friday.

"I do appreciate citizens who may be aware of something to raise that concern," Shields said. "It's very difficult, though, without looking at the specific types of leukemia, where the children live and what they may have been exposed to, to know whether a cluster truly exists in a city, a block, a county. There are so many variables.

"Nine kids with various forms of leukemia may or may not be a statistical aberration."


After hearing last week about Abner's concerns, Shields contacted Kirby Kruger, the state epidemiologist, and Dr. Stephen Pickard, the state medical officer.

"I asked them to take a look at this," Shields said. "It's going to take some time to look at the data and all the variables, but I would suspect in the next 60 days we should have some preliminary answers.

"I wouldn't be alarmed at this time. It's too early to say there is a cluster. But we do need to look at it."

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