Just four neighbors getting together for dinner at an Italian restaurant. Then, the talk turned to cancer.
Anna Rung mentioned a relative who has leukemia. Barbara Hannah brought up her breast cancer. Then, there was the friend of Hannah’s who learned she had breast cancer two weeks after Hannah was diagnosed.
The conversation gave voice to their anxiety: Why? Why here?
The women live in Centereach, one of three communities on Long Island that state health officials have identified as having elevated rates of leukemia and lung, bladder and thyroid cancers.
“This is something that is really bothering us,” said Rung, 68, who recounted the evening last weekend. “It’s scary.”
The dinner took place a few days before state health officials came to Long Island to explain their findings to residents of Centereach as well as Selden and Farmingville, the other two communities. Some 250 people showed up.
The experts explained how they came up with the numbers and then they laid out the numbers: For all three communities, leukemia was up 64 percent; thyroid cancer, 43 percent; bladder cancer, 50 percent; and lung cancer, 56 percent.
What they didn’t talk about is why the rates are so much higher than expected. They have their suspicions — maybe smoking brought on the lung and bladder cancers, maybe better screening found the thyroid cancer. But, they told the crowd, more research will have to be done to try to pinpoint the reasons. And they will do it.
A day after the meeting, outside the Middle Country Library in Centereach, Rung and a handful of others had their own thoughts. Rung’s theory: the high-tension wires near her home.
“Thirty-five years ago I asked about the wires, and people said they were safe,” Rung said. “Now people are getting sick, and I wonder how safe they are.”
Robert Lechner has lived in Centereach for all of his 54 years. He recalled the stories he heard as a boy about old dumping sites. Then again, who knows?
“Maybe it’s the cellphone towers. There’s microwaves all over the place,” Lechner said. “We’ve got Brookhaven Lab. You don’t know what they’re letting loose in the air.”
Jeff Beaudoin lives is Centereach, too. He has an answer.
“I think it’s just statistics,” said Beaudoin, 68. “Is it the area (to blame), or just some numbers? It’s hard to tell.”
Farmingville is where Rebecca Suarez has lived three decades. Farmingville, Selden, Centereach — they border each other. She worries about her 11-year-old grandson and the kids living in the area.
“They’re drinking the water, they’re breathing the air,” said Suarez, 66.
Eth Stone lives in Selden. She started worrying about the chemicals used on lawns when her dog died of cancer.
Now, she focuses on her own choices.
“I’ve been drinking bottled water for years,” said Stone, 60, a nurse.
Rung, for her part, worries that these cancers are striking at all kinds of people, regardless of how well they care for themselves.
“It’s one thing if you’re doing something wrong and this happens,” she said, “but if you’re doing things right and it happens — it’s scary.”