by Angie Pieper
My sister Kristen passed away two years ago from a brain tumor, now a mere two years later my mother is battling a stage four cancer also. My name is Angie. Our home was in Frederick, Maryland, near Fort Detrick. If you, a friend or loved one live in or used to live in Frederick, MD and either suffered or suffer from any form of cancer, there may be more to the story than you think.
Kristen and I had a very “normal” and happy life. We grew up as carefree small-town girls in the quaint town of Frederick, MD. My parents divorced young, so my sister, brother and I lived with my mom. As our mom, Debbie, worked diligently for her paycheck, Kristen was often caretaker to my brother and I. We were two years apart in age and best of friends. Eventually our mom and our step-dad, Eric, saved enough money and moved us from our Hillcrest neighborhood to our new home just off of Shookstown Road in Lake Coventry.
All three kids attended Frederick High School. Like many of you, we looked forward to 4th of July at Baker Park, the Great Frederick Fair, and of course our local “In the Streets” celebration. All summer long we held family BBQ’s in our backyard. Life was normal; we were happy.
Eventually, I moved from Frederick to attend college, and after my sister was married, she also moved – both of us to Florida. I stood as Kristen’s maid of honor, watching her say her vows in her beautiful wedding dress. I was with her when she gave birth to two precious children. Kristen was matron of honor at my wedding. We did everything every “normal” sister/ best friends do. Unfortunately, things for my family didn’t stay “normal.”
A few days after my wedding, I received a frightening phone call from a complete stranger, an Orlando paramedic. My 28-year old healthy, beautiful sister was lying in an ambulance, unconscious. No one knew what had happened to her or if she would even wake up. I was by her side for a week as she slowly regained consciousness, and held her hand when the doctor told her it was a malignant, inoperable brain tumor. I stayed with my sister day and night throughout the next 15 months of her battle against this wretched disease. I watched my sister and best friend being taken away from me, and there was nothing I could do. I tried my best to get her around when the disease took the use of her legs. I tried even harder to understand her when she could no longer speak.
At the young age of 30, I held Kristen’s hand and sat by her side as she slipped away. Kristen Renee, mother, daughter, amazing sister and best friend was gone.
The next year was especially difficult. We struggled to pick up the pieces, and strived to find something “normal,” for Kristen’s kids, for each other. Holidays and birthdays went by and so did the year anniversary of losing our beautiful Kristen. My family slowly began to regain strength, and smile again. It wouldn’t last.
Two months shy of the second anniversary of our loss, came another devastating phone call. This time not from a stranger, but from my mom, “Angie, I’m so sorry, I don’t want to put you through this again, but they found a mass on my kidney.” Again my world was ripped away.
Within a few hours I was on a plane, rushing to my mother’s hospital bed. I have never faced such screams and moans of agony. My 52 year old mother was lying in a hospital bed confused, devastated, and in intense physical pain. Here she’d worked hard her whole life, hardly ever drank alcohol, wasn’t a smoker, and now her body was racked with pain, and from what? Cancer! How and why again???
Just like with my sister I held Mom’s hand as the doctor told her she had a terminal stage four cancer. This time the diagnosis was Renal Cell Carcinoma with metastasis to the bone and spine. We are now continuously fighting through the nausea, low blood counts, radiation, and a deteriorating spine.
At Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, we have some of the best doctors. As her oncologist explained that renal cell is usually genetic, or the family carries some type of kidney disease, I began to question everything that happened to my family in the past two years. We had no prior instances of cancer, blindness, or diabetes or anything that would indicate renal cell carcinoma in our bloodline.
What if this was not just a tragic coincidence of my sister’s death and my mother’s new diagnosis? What if it was environmental?
Immediately I researched the air, soil and water of our family home. My initial findings told me that just last year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added the Fort Detrick Area B Groundwater to the National Priority List (NPL) based on tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE) detections in off site drinking wells. I continued to read an entire report written by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) which confirmed residential areas located next to Fort Detrick had traces of these chemicals and were highly contaminated for years. I was shocked to read the dangerously high levels of toxins that engulfed my childhood home.
I was petrified for my entire family and the friends I knew lived in those areas.
Growing up I’d heard far-fetched stories of what could possibly be buried in our backyards, but like many, I believed it was just Frederick folklore. Unfortunately, I began uncovering much evidence that proved this was not far-fetched at all.
I called officials I believed could help my family. Within a week, I was contacted by Joseph Gortva, Army project manager at Ft. Detrick. Mr. Gortva had set up a conference call with a few others and myself. During the call I was asked several questions, and Mr. Gortva genuinely seemed to be concerned. I appreciate the fact that I had received a response and that my information was taken so seriously.
Off site contamination isn’t a new problem Detrick faces, but a very old one.
After growing up here, my family is seeing firsthand the consequences of the contamination. I studied the specific chemicals we were exposed to, mainly TCE. I referred to the Internal Agency for Research on Cancer, which gave me insight on this chemical. TCE has been directly linked to liver cancer and increased Renal cell in mice with long-term exposure – the same thing my Mom has. More so, TCE is strongly linked to lymphomas. Kristen’s son’s father, who also lived in this area with her, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma two years before Kristen’s diagnosis. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Then I shuddered. Were we the only family affected or are there others?
I asked friends, and sadly, we weren’t alone. There have been many before my family and there are many currently in the area battling with similar situations. Many that I found with recent diagnosis are just 30-35 years old. Most are battling or have fought a form of lymphoma and many other cancers. Their addresses were all within 6 miles of each other, all surrounding Fort Detrick.
Some may say I need to continue to prove that Fort Detrick has done this to my family, but with all the written reports of the various contaminants thrown into our backyards, I believe Detrick needs to prove to me that they didn’t.
I would like to personally invite you to join my family on July 10th for a town meeting that we are holding - a time to come together and ask the right questions and get the answers that could potentially save you and your family. Many of you or your neighbors may have had to fight these horrible diseases. Just as I was there with my sister, and my mom, I would like to be there with you to hear your story and take your questions. – Angie Pieper
(Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry-ATSDR)
(Baltimore Sun article)
(Internal Agency for Research on Cancer)
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”- Albert Einstein