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GenX Wilmington, NC

Virginia Gates

 Photo taken by Emily Wilson for Encore

Photo taken by Emily Wilson for Encore

Deep breath... If you've paid attention recently, my hometown of Wilmington, NC has faced a tremendous amount of upheaval mostly due to news that a cocktail of endocrine disrupting chemicals has been dumped in the Cape Fear River, Wilmington's tap water source, for more than 3 decades by Dupont spin-off company Chemours. I wish those words didn't still feel like a brick in my throat as I type them. That feeling has sat around much too long these days. 

The photo above is me, holding my one year old son, Finnegan, at a protest. I can't say that holding signs in protests is something I do regularly but this day, I could see no other choice. Just out of frame my 5 year old daughter sat on the ground playing My Little Ponies and eating a bag of chips as we waited for officials to come out of a closed door meeting with the company representatives from Chemours. We waited to hear that having been caught, Chemours would stop discharging into the river. I don't know if I have ever been as angry or as scared as those first few weeks when the news broke and everyone clamored to find some sort of justification, solution, or just plain old information in general. Was the water safe to drink? Why would any of our representatives allow companies to use our river as their personal sewer? What will happen to my children as I drank the water during their pregnancies? How do I, as a mother, get rid of this crushing guilt of not being able to protect my children from something that should have been innocuous?

My daughter drew those doodles on my sign. She had her own sign as well. When she asked why we were going to the government building I told her it was because we believed in doing the right thing and sometimes doing the right thing is resisting. Safe is not an ambiguous word when it comes to water. "Safe" should not mean a little bit of poison, no, not even 140 parts per trillion of poison. "Safe" also doesn't mean we allow chemicals that have not been rigorously studied to be ingested by babies and pregnant women. "Safe" does not mean "may cause kidney cancer or thyroid disorder in some individuals." Our water should be safe and transparent. So, when those who have been hired by the public to keep our families safe choose profits over people, we strap our babies to our chests and we resist, as best we can, in whatever means we can. As an artist, I feel compelled to create out of every impulse of fear.  My work allows me to navigate my anxiety in a productive way.

GenX Chemours

In that vein, I wanted to create a series to bring light in a powerful way to the humanity of this crisis. I wanted our representatives and the country at large to understand who exactly they were making their decisions for and who they were supposed to protect. I was lucky enough to meet Amy Herman at a city council meeting we both attended in protest of GenX. During that meeting, a member of Amy's extraordinary group of friends, Pete Herrmann, recounted his daughter's fight for her life at the age of four from stage V kidney cancer, Wilm's Tumor. I was brought to tears. It was then that the I realized the focus of this series should center on these families who understand, greater than any of us, what is at stake when our water source becomes tainted with carcinogenic chemicals. These families have walked a path so many of us fear and they feel adamantly about the work that needs to be done to clean up the Cape Fear River. I am humbled and honored that they chose to allow me to tell their stories here. 

 Abigail diagnosed with bilateral Wilm's tumor.  "When Abigail was 4 years old she was diagnosed with bilateral Wilm’s tumor. Which is kidney cancer in both kidneys. It had already metastasized to both lungs by the time it was caught. She was considered a stage V cancer. It happened out of the blue. Kids often don’t have any warning before you find out. She literally woke up from a nap screaming in pain. She had been asleep perfectly fine. We rushed to the ER a little bit later when it wasn’t calming down. And we found out that night she was diagnosed with cancer. We were immediately whisked off to Chapel Hill where she received all her treatment." 1/3

Abigail diagnosed with bilateral Wilm's tumor.

"When Abigail was 4 years old she was diagnosed with bilateral Wilm’s tumor. Which is kidney cancer in both kidneys. It had already metastasized to both lungs by the time it was caught. She was considered a stage V cancer. It happened out of the blue. Kids often don’t have any warning before you find out. She literally woke up from a nap screaming in pain. She had been asleep perfectly fine. We rushed to the ER a little bit later when it wasn’t calming down. And we found out that night she was diagnosed with cancer. We were immediately whisked off to Chapel Hill where she received all her treatment." 1/3

    "She had full radiation at the age of four. She is done with the amount of lifetime radiation she can have. At four she is maxxed out. They were able to save both kidneys, which is an amazing, amazing thing. They do that in particular with bilateral cancer because they don’t want to gamble picking the wrong kidney to take out in case the cancer comes back. Wilm’s tumor are very rare, bilateral is extremely rare. There are only 25-50 cases a year which is only 5-10% of Wilm’s tumor annual numbers. She has been through genetic testing and doctors have determined her cancer is not genetic. It’s as unlucky as being struck by lightning several times. And there are several children in Wilmington with Wilm’s tumor. Her new friend Nathan was actually diagnosed the same week, also at four. We have a picture of them on 5C, the floor at UNC that does oncology, she’s wrapped in a pink monkey blanket in a wagon, because she couldn’t walk and Nathan is wrapped in a blue monkey blanket on a tricycle." 2/3

 

"She had full radiation at the age of four. She is done with the amount of lifetime radiation she can have. At four she is maxxed out. They were able to save both kidneys, which is an amazing, amazing thing. They do that in particular with bilateral cancer because they don’t want to gamble picking the wrong kidney to take out in case the cancer comes back. Wilm’s tumor are very rare, bilateral is extremely rare. There are only 25-50 cases a year which is only 5-10% of Wilm’s tumor annual numbers. She has been through genetic testing and doctors have determined her cancer is not genetic. It’s as unlucky as being struck by lightning several times. And there are several children in Wilmington with Wilm’s tumor. Her new friend Nathan was actually diagnosed the same week, also at four. We have a picture of them on 5C, the floor at UNC that does oncology, she’s wrapped in a pink monkey blanket in a wagon, because she couldn’t walk and Nathan is wrapped in a blue monkey blanket on a tricycle." 2/3

 "We know it’s not genetic. It’s environmental. Why couldn’t it be the water? Interestingly enough, when she was diagnosed we were already in a water crisis in Surf City. We got a letter in the mail, 4 days after she was diagnosed, saying there was a chemical in the water. It said, 'The water is safe to drink.' But then at the bottom there was a sentence that said 'may cause kidney cancer.' This problem clearly extends further than the Cape Fear River. I would beg our representatives to make these companies stop dumping in our water. It’s water. It’s a basic necessity of life. These are our lives. We live in such a gorgeous, gorgeous place. For those living here and those looking at our city, the fact that our water is tainted? It’s devastating." 3/3

"We know it’s not genetic. It’s environmental. Why couldn’t it be the water? Interestingly enough, when she was diagnosed we were already in a water crisis in Surf City. We got a letter in the mail, 4 days after she was diagnosed, saying there was a chemical in the water. It said, 'The water is safe to drink.' But then at the bottom there was a sentence that said 'may cause kidney cancer.' This problem clearly extends further than the Cape Fear River. I would beg our representatives to make these companies stop dumping in our water. It’s water. It’s a basic necessity of life. These are our lives. We live in such a gorgeous, gorgeous place. For those living here and those looking at our city, the fact that our water is tainted? It’s devastating." 3/3

 Nathan diagnosed with Wilm's tumor.  "I would describe our experience as never ending. Even though in remission, we worry about side effects from treatment and damage to the heart and other organs from radiation and chemo, and how having only one kidney will affect him throughout his life. I worry about delayed cognitive response from chemo, about anxiety he may have about facing his own mortality at the age of 4. I worry about his teeth not being developed properly from treatment. I worry about which sports he can or cannot play. I worry about his ability to have children and the fact that statistics prove childhood cancer survivors have a great shortened life span and a lifetime of chronic illness. And then of course I worry that his cancer will come back or he will develop a secondary cancer because of treatment. But at the same time I have learned to be grateful for every single day that I get to spend with him, and try to remember what an incredible gift it is to have 24 hours with your child. And it's all personal now--I used to watch St. Jude's commercials with my guard up and not willing to think about such horrors. Now it is our reality and one we filter all of life through." 1/2

Nathan diagnosed with Wilm's tumor.

"I would describe our experience as never ending. Even though in remission, we worry about side effects from treatment and damage to the heart and other organs from radiation and chemo, and how having only one kidney will affect him throughout his life. I worry about delayed cognitive response from chemo, about anxiety he may have about facing his own mortality at the age of 4. I worry about his teeth not being developed properly from treatment. I worry about which sports he can or cannot play. I worry about his ability to have children and the fact that statistics prove childhood cancer survivors have a great shortened life span and a lifetime of chronic illness. And then of course I worry that his cancer will come back or he will develop a secondary cancer because of treatment. But at the same time I have learned to be grateful for every single day that I get to spend with him, and try to remember what an incredible gift it is to have 24 hours with your child. And it's all personal now--I used to watch St. Jude's commercials with my guard up and not willing to think about such horrors. Now it is our reality and one we filter all of life through." 1/2

 "I would like to tell our reps that plain and simply, it is their job to protect our kids and to put the interests of the citizens above those of billion dollar businesses that would turn a blind eye to safety in the interest of better stock prices and increased sales. There should not be anything put into any water system that has not been proven safe---and the current theory that a substance is safe until proven otherwise is idiotic and has been proven over time to be untrue and dangerous..." 2/2

"I would like to tell our reps that plain and simply, it is their job to protect our kids and to put the interests of the citizens above those of billion dollar businesses that would turn a blind eye to safety in the interest of better stock prices and increased sales. There should not be anything put into any water system that has not been proven safe---and the current theory that a substance is safe until proven otherwise is idiotic and has been proven over time to be untrue and dangerous..." 2/2

    Carter diagnosed with extrarenal metastatic rhabdoid tumor, it filled his stomach, spread to his lungs, and brain.  "It was short. We didn't believe it would be so short. We had hope. Even though statistics proved hope wrong. We want everyone to remember how strong Carter is/was. Diagnosed at 9mths. Passed the day before he would have been 13 months. He fought so hard, he is so beautiful. His smile lit up the room. We wish we had more options. His cancer is an aggressive, quick cancer. With no set options." 1/3

 

Carter diagnosed with extrarenal metastatic rhabdoid tumor, it filled his stomach, spread to his lungs, and brain.

"It was short. We didn't believe it would be so short. We had hope. Even though statistics proved hope wrong. We want everyone to remember how strong Carter is/was. Diagnosed at 9mths. Passed the day before he would have been 13 months. He fought so hard, he is so beautiful. His smile lit up the room. We wish we had more options. His cancer is an aggressive, quick cancer. With no set options." 1/3

    "When Carter would throw the bottle in the car, Mace would give it back to him. 'He’d pretend to throw it in my face!' He was always making him laugh. He fit in so well with the boys." 2/3

 

"When Carter would throw the bottle in the car, Mace would give it back to him. 'He’d pretend to throw it in my face!' He was always making him laugh. He fit in so well with the boys." 2/3

    "Carter's cancer is specifically a kidney cancer. The tumor filled his stomach, we assume it started in his liver. We will never know if me drinking water when I was pregnant was the cause. Or if mixing his formula with tap water would have caused it. We will never know if it's the cause. But, the number of children diagnosed in our area is very concerning. To hear that these chemicals can cause cancer is alarming. There should not be any chemicals in our water at all. No matter the specified limit. We should have been able to trust our water source. I'm taking a stance of prevention for the future, our children need to be protected, and not drinking cancer causing chemicals." 3/3

 

"Carter's cancer is specifically a kidney cancer. The tumor filled his stomach, we assume it started in his liver. We will never know if me drinking water when I was pregnant was the cause. Or if mixing his formula with tap water would have caused it. We will never know if it's the cause. But, the number of children diagnosed in our area is very concerning. To hear that these chemicals can cause cancer is alarming. There should not be any chemicals in our water at all. No matter the specified limit. We should have been able to trust our water source. I'm taking a stance of prevention for the future, our children need to be protected, and not drinking cancer causing chemicals." 3/3

 Maddie diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma.  "Our experience with Maddie's cancer was brutal and heartbreaking. Maddie suffered in so much pain during her 4 year battle with Rhabdomyosarcoma. She was robbed of her childhood and adulthood." 1/3

Maddie diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma.

"Our experience with Maddie's cancer was brutal and heartbreaking. Maddie suffered in so much pain during her 4 year battle with Rhabdomyosarcoma. She was robbed of her childhood and adulthood." 1/3

    "She passed away just one month after her 9th birthday. Our family will never be the same. We miss her terribly and the sense of loss we feel is indescribable." 2/3

 

"She passed away just one month after her 9th birthday. Our family will never be the same. We miss her terribly and the sense of loss we feel is indescribable." 2/3

    "It is terrifying to think that I now have to worry about my surviving children's safety from something that should be benign. I already live in fear of losing another child to cancer, but now I have to worry about something as essential as our drinking water." 3/3

 

"It is terrifying to think that I now have to worry about my surviving children's safety from something that should be benign. I already live in fear of losing another child to cancer, but now I have to worry about something as essential as our drinking water." 3/3

 Jacob diagnosed with leukemia.   "Jacob had 1180 days straight of chemo. For me I think the hardest part was watching the light go out in his eyes. He lost a lot of his childhood. He lost all of his innocence and I saw that desperate look in his eyes that people get when they're fighting for their lives. Cancer took away so much from my family and it still is since we are now having to fight battles over clean water." 1/3

Jacob diagnosed with leukemia. 

"Jacob had 1180 days straight of chemo. For me I think the hardest part was watching the light go out in his eyes. He lost a lot of his childhood. He lost all of his innocence and I saw that desperate look in his eyes that people get when they're fighting for their lives. Cancer took away so much from my family and it still is since we are now having to fight battles over clean water." 1/3

 "I think our leaders failed miserably. We count on them to protect our drinking water. We count on them to protect the river since it is the source of our drinking water. They knew about the water contamination for a long time and they didn't do anything to stop it or to even inform us - And now our kids are the ones paying the price. There are many more families in Wilmington like ours - so many kids who have been diagnosed with cancer." 2/3

"I think our leaders failed miserably. We count on them to protect our drinking water. We count on them to protect the river since it is the source of our drinking water. They knew about the water contamination for a long time and they didn't do anything to stop it or to even inform us - And now our kids are the ones paying the price. There are many more families in Wilmington like ours - so many kids who have been diagnosed with cancer." 2/3

 "I want to know who is tracking all of the children with cancer who live along the Cape Fear River. I also want those who were responsible for this to be held accountable. We are speaking out because we would do anything to prevent future families from the devastation of receiving a childhood cancer diagnosis. And we believe that having clean drinking water will do a lot to cut down on childhood cancer rates in our area. We want politicians to protect our water and protect our kids. And for all the families who have lost their children to cancer, we want them to know we are fighting for them." 3/3

"I want to know who is tracking all of the children with cancer who live along the Cape Fear River. I also want those who were responsible for this to be held accountable. We are speaking out because we would do anything to prevent future families from the devastation of receiving a childhood cancer diagnosis. And we believe that having clean drinking water will do a lot to cut down on childhood cancer rates in our area. We want politicians to protect our water and protect our kids. And for all the families who have lost their children to cancer, we want them to know we are fighting for them." 3/3

 Natali diagnosed with Wilm's tumor.  "Natali's cancer will forever affect her and our family's life. This isn't something that you get treatment for and then boom she's all better. We are talking about some extremely toxic chemicals going into her 5 year old body. These are chemicals that haven't even been updated in many, many years. Our government thinks our tax paying dollars should go more into research and development for adult cancer than childhood. When and why have we stopped investing in the lives of our children (our future)? We will forever be bound to living near a hospital that can treat her, the ongoing side effects, medical bills, and just plain quality of life. Since Natali is a female she has an even higher risk of side effects if she were to ever get pregnant. There is a possibility that she won't even be able to conceive her own child due to the direct radiation to her female organs." 1/2

Natali diagnosed with Wilm's tumor.

"Natali's cancer will forever affect her and our family's life. This isn't something that you get treatment for and then boom she's all better. We are talking about some extremely toxic chemicals going into her 5 year old body. These are chemicals that haven't even been updated in many, many years. Our government thinks our tax paying dollars should go more into research and development for adult cancer than childhood. When and why have we stopped investing in the lives of our children (our future)? We will forever be bound to living near a hospital that can treat her, the ongoing side effects, medical bills, and just plain quality of life. Since Natali is a female she has an even higher risk of side effects if she were to ever get pregnant. There is a possibility that she won't even be able to conceive her own child due to the direct radiation to her female organs." 1/2

 "My words to our government are this: when this happens to your child/grandchild, and it will if something isn't done immediately, then will you stand up to fight this fight with us? We are living proof that all of these contaminates harshly affect our bodies. We have to have clean water, air, soil to live. We have entrusted these elected officials to protect us and they haven't done their jobs therefore they need to be dismissed and let someone else take over. This is their job! If I didn't do my job I would be fired or let go, why aren't they facing the same consequences?" 2/2

"My words to our government are this: when this happens to your child/grandchild, and it will if something isn't done immediately, then will you stand up to fight this fight with us? We are living proof that all of these contaminates harshly affect our bodies. We have to have clean water, air, soil to live. We have entrusted these elected officials to protect us and they haven't done their jobs therefore they need to be dismissed and let someone else take over. This is their job! If I didn't do my job I would be fired or let go, why aren't they facing the same consequences?" 2/2

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