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    Jointly reported by WebMD and Georgia Health News

    Oct. 20, 2016 -- When four children in Waycross, GA, were diagnosed with sarcoma cancers within a 2-month period last year, people wanted to know if they had a cancer cluster.

    Chief among them was state Rep. Jason Spencer, a Republican from Woodbine who is also a physician assistant.

    “This may be one of the first of its kind to happen like this in the United States. I haven’t seen anywhere else where you’ve seen this many rare cancers of this type pop up close to each other,” he says.

    Spencer and a community group called Silent Disaster, which has long suspected there is environmental contamination in Waycross, have asked the state to investigate.

    The CDC has a specific definition for a cancer cluster. It’s based on five variables:

    • A greater than expected number
    • Of the same type of cancer cases
    • That occurs within a group of people
    • In a geographic area
    • Over a given period of time

    But depending on how investigators define each of those, it can influence the outcome of a cluster investigation.

    In Waycross, three of the children have been diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a kind of cancer that typically springs from the soft tissues of the body, usually muscles. The fourth has a different, but related, type of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, which grows in bones or the soft tissues that touch them.

    To make matters even more complicated, among the three children with rhabdomyosarcomas, two have been diagnosed with a type called embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. The other has a different kind called alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma.

    Investigators would also have to define the geographic area under investigation. That’s not necessarily clear-cut, either.

    The children diagnosed last year don’t all live within the city limits. Two children live in Waycross, proper. The other two live in tiny communities just outside the city limits.

    Because of these factors, Spencer says he wasn’t surprised when he received preliminary results of the cluster investigation from the Georgia Department of Public Health concluding that there’s no cancer increase in the area. But the department says it won’t know for sure until it has all the data from Georgia’s Cancer Registry -- something that may take up to 2 years.