Rare cancer strikes hard around Marine City, Mich.

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Jim Lynch, Detroit News staff writer

Public health officials in St. Clair County aren't sure what they have on their hands, but they know it isn't good. In the span of four years, five cases of a relatively uncommon kidney cancer — called Wilms' tumor — have cropped up in the vicinity of Marine City.

It's a cancer that typically strikes 500 people in the United States each year, most often children. And that's what has been happening recently. Since 2007, five cases of the disease have been reported in the city of roughly 5,000 -- the most recent being identified in a 6-month-old girl in March.

St. Clair County's Public Health Department has been monitoring the accumulation of Wilms' tumor cases for several years. Following the most recent report, officials decided to launch a new investigation to look at the possibility there might be an environmental component involved.

Marine City has industrial plants and lies more than 10 miles down the St Clair River from Sarnia, Ontario's, Chemical Valley, home to petrochemical plants. But there is no clear indication the occurrence of Wilms' tumors is linked to an environmental or genetic factor, health officials say.

"Even with four cases reported at the end of 2009, we recognized it as something that was unusual," said Sue Amato, the county's director of health education. "So we began collecting data and turned it over to the Michigan Department of Community Health. They came to the conclusion that there was nothing unusual at that point.

"With the identification of a fifth case, the investigation has been reopened by us."

That's what Kristina Tranchemontagne wanted to hear. The Marine City mother of three remembered the last days of October 2008, when things went terribly wrong her daughter, Ashleigh, then 31/2.

"She was having a lack of appetite, but I though maybe she was just being a picky eater," Tranchemontagne said. "Then on Oct. 30, her bellybutton just popped out, and I felt a lump there."

After an examination, the family's pediatrician immediately sent Ashleigh to the hospital for tests. Doctors found the tumor had consumed an entire kidney.

"I was crushed," her mother said. "My world was coming down on me."

After a month of chemotherapy, surgeons removed Ashleigh's tumor, along with her adrenal gland and lymph nodes. Today, she is a "healthy, spunky 6-year-old" going to kindergarten and starting the T-ball season.

But Tranchemontagne and other parents whose children have been diagnosed with Wilms' tumor are alarmed so many who live so close have endured the same problem.

The Mayo Clinic says Wilms' tumor is believed to develop from immature kidney cells. The survival rate for children is 92 percent, according to statistics compiled between 1985-94 by the National Cancer Institute.

Jeffrey Taub, a pediatric oncologist at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, said the closely grouped incidents in Marine City are worthy of investigation.

"I think that it's unusual," he said. "These cases do have the appearance that suggests there is probably something environmental, or it could just be a coincidence."

Danielle Sabatini Williams has lived in Marine City for 10 years and has three children. Erika, now 10, is the middle child and was diagnosed with Wilms' tumor at age 7.

Erika endured a battery of tests that revealed a tumor the size of football. The mass was large enough to be visible pushing against her stomach. Her tumor was removed in surgery along with her adrenal gland and lymph nodes.

Erika still has regular checkups, and she has been in remission for two years. "I don't' know if there's something in the air or what," Sabatini Williams said. "But something is going on here and it's environmental. I'm sure of it. This is not genetic."

Knowing whether an environmental issue is to blame will likely to take time, Amato said.

"It's really important that people do not panic and draw premature conclusions that this is linked to something in the environment," she said. "We want the public to know that we're taking this very seriously. We have assigned a team here at the health department that is working diligently on this every day."

Photo caption: Valerie Benson hugs granddaughter Ashleigh Tranchemontagne, 6, at Benson's home in Kimball, Mich. Ashleigh battled Wilms' tumor, a cancer that typically strikes 500 people a year in the U.S. But there have been five cases in St. Clair County alone since 2007. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)