9/11 and cancer

Remember seeing this photo in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?

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Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Marcy Borders, who came to be known as “the Dust Lady” survived the WTC attack after fleeing her office on the 81st floor of the North Tower. She was 28 years old. That terrible day set off a chain of events that ended tragically: on Monday, Marcy Borders died, at age 42, from stomach cancer.

Borders suspected a connection between the terrorist attacks and her cancer. In an online interview, she wondered if her experience on that terrible day caused her cancer: “I’m saying to myself, ‘Did this thing ignite cancer cells in me? I definitely believe it because I haven’t had any illnesses. I don’t have high blood pressure … high cholesterol, diabetes. …  How do you go from being healthy to waking up the next day with cancer?”

That’s a question many of us have asked. Whether young or old, the question of how one goes from healthy to cancer-ridden remains, and that question can haunt those of us who have stared into the eyes of the beast that is cancer.

For those who were at Ground Zero, that haunting question becomes a common refrain. It’s hard to know just how many cancer diagnoses resulted from events surrounding the terrorist attacks, but we do know that first responders and civilians fleeing the towers were exposed to a nasty combination of carcinogens. This toxic dust is likely responsible for the fact that people present in the terrorist attacks have gotten certain cancers — skin and prostate cancers as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and mesothelioma — at significantly higher rates than people in the regular population. Even now, more than a decade later, the lingering health effects remain unknown, but experts suspect the full extent of cancer and 9/11 will begin to emerge, as it has with Marcy Borders.

Photographer Michael McAuliff was also at Ground Zero on September 11, covering the events for ABC News. He too wondered how his health was affected by the dust that covered Marcy Borders and everyone else in the vicinity. He collected and saved the dust that covered him as he worked on September 11, 2001, and recently submitted the dust and his computer bag he carried that day for testing. When the test results arrived, McAuliff discovered:

“About half the material was ‘non-fibrous’ including polystyrene foam, vermiculite mineral, combustion product (carbon soot), mineral dust of gypsum, calcite, dolomite and quartz. The other half was fibrous material including “cellulose (wood and paper fragments), fibrous glass such as glass wool with yellow resin coating, Fiberglass, colorless mineral wool, refractory ceramic fibers, limestone, calcites, carbon fibers, synthetics (including fragments of cloth) and chrysotile asbestos associated with the lime and carbonate insulation debris. Also found were ‘additional chemical signatures of silicates, kaolin clays, pigments (TiO2), calcites, dolomites, carbonates, metal complexes (sub-micron chromium, aluminum/iron matrices) and chrysotile asbestos.’ Metals included small amounts of lead, chromium, zinc and cadmium.”

McAuliff seems to have dodged a bullet and has received a clean bill of health. Unlike Marcy Borders.

Surviving the terrorist attack was just the beginning of a long battle for her. In an interview, Borders said “it was like my soul was knocked down with those towers.” Her battered soul endured depression and drug addiction. “My life spiraled out of control. I didn’t do a day’s work in nearly 10 years, and by 2011 I was a complete mess. Every time I saw an aircraft, I panicked. I started smoking crack cocaine, because I didn’t want to live.”

Ten years later, Borders decided she did indeed want to live, and in April 2011 she entered rehab. She worked hard to reclaim her life and move forward. She got sober and committed herself to putting that terror behind her, saying “The anniversary of (9/11) gives me no fear. I’ve got peace now. I’m not afraid of anything. I try to take myself from being a victim to being a survivor now. I don’t want to be a victim anymore.”

Rest in peace, Marcy Borders, and know that you are much more than “the Dust Lady.” You are proof that we can endure terrible things and come away with peace.


4 Comments on “9/11 and cancer”

  1. David Benbow says:

    Wow. I don’t remember this story. What a tragedy.

  2. mmr says:

    Fabulous post– thanks! It has made me angry when people I’ve known assume that cancer patients did something wrong to “cause” cancer. Perhaps we are unwittingly exposed to carcinogens, just like the people who were at Ground Zero. How many of us had a parent who smoked in the house when we were at puberty age– I’ve seen links to that and breast cancer. And on top of that, a friend of mine who was a radiology nurse has told me that she was amazed how many of her patients had a traumatic life event (death of a loved one, divorce, etc.) which caused a lot of stress right before they were diagnosed. The people at Ground Zero endured unimaginable stress. I think a lot of information about cancer and psychology could be gleaned from the survivors of 9/11. Then maybe at least their pain could come to some good. I think this woman’s story of the aftermath is a sober reminder that being a “survivor” is really, really tough. Thanks again for a thoughtful blog.

  3. billgncs says:

    we still pay the cost of that terrible day – may she rest in peace.

  4. jbaird says:

    What an excellent post. I hadn’t really contemplated the long-term aftermath of the terrorist attacks. It was like the Love Canal, in the same state but much, much worse. Thank you for this timely reminder that each day we live is precious and not to be taken for granted. xxx


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