Ida Peterson married her Roanoke College sweetheart, Michael Hardon, in 2020, in a small garden in Baltimore near Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was receiving chemotherapy at the time. “I was totally bald,” she recalls, and replaced her flower crown with a lavender wig for the reception.

Peterson Hardon had been diagnosed three months earlier with acute myleloid leukemia (A.M.L.), an aggressive form of cancer that typically affects people in their 70s. In the hospital, she met Seth Waxman, another Roanoke student from her graduating year who was battling the same type of cancer.

Waxman lost his battle to A.M.L. in 2021. “I’m in therapy,” Peterson Hardon says the first time we speak. “It definitely fucked me up.” She describes how difficult it was to watch Waxman die and how she feared that her own cancer, in remission at the time, would return. As it was, the chemo left her infertile and with what doctors thought was Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that leads to hyperthyroidism.

We talked about her thyroid-removal-surgery date, which was set for a month after our first conversation. But the surgery never happened. On November 15, 2023, at 4:30 in the morning, two weeks after we first spoke, Peterson Hardon suffered a massive heart attack. She was diagnosed with myocarditis, which explained her Graves-like symptoms but raised another, harrowing question: How exactly did a young, healthy person develop a viral infection in her heart? Two biopsies later, everyone’s worst fears came true—the cancer was back.

Peterson Hardon, Roanoke class of 2013, during one of her rounds of chemo.

On February 4, 2024, Peterson Hardon’s husband sent a message to their friends and family. “As hard as it is to say,” he wrote, “the primary option on the table is salvage therapy to buy as much time as we possibly can.” A few months later, Peterson Hardon stopped her blood transfusions. “I’ve fought like hell but nothing worked and unfortunately I’m out of options,” she wrote in another message. “33 years young, I am headed to hospice care…. Thank you all for your friendship - see you on the other side.”

She died on May 13.

Peterson Hardon is the fifth Roanoke alumnus to die from a rare form of cancer in the last three years, and one of at least 16 alumni from the classes of 2011 to 2019 to be diagnosed with cancer since 2010, with the majority diagnosed in the last five years.

News of this seemingly high cancer-occurrence rate has made waves both in the alumni population and on campus, where some students have raised the alarm, asking questions about their own health.

“33 years young, I am headed to hospice care…. Thank you all for your friendship - see you on the other side.”

To a statistician’s eye, these numbers don’t just feel high, they are high. According to Boris Reva, associate professor of the Department of Genetics and Genomic Sciences at Mount Sinai, in New York, the rate of cancer within the recent Roanoke alumni pool is five times higher than that of 20- to 29-year-olds in the U.S., and the mortality rate is 15 times higher. (Colleges don’t collect their own data on this, so it’s virtually impossible to compare Roanoke to other schools, which Reva underscored would have strengthened his own analysis as well as helped to safeguard from similar situations going unreported.)

Reva calculates that there is a 1.5 chance in 100 million that this rate of cancer would occur naturally—about the same likelihood that a person is struck by lightning twice in their lifetime.

Across the United States and the world, rates of cancer in young people have been rising with no clear explanation. According to the American Cancer Society, while every other age group has seen a decrease in overall cancer incidence between 1995 and 2020, the rate for people under 50 has actually been increasing by 1 to 2 percent each year. This phenomenon has made headlines in recent months, especially with Princess Catherine of Wales’s cancer diagnosis.

When reached for comment, Roanoke College underscored this point. “Cancer rates are on the rise in young people in America, and doctors do not fully understand why,” notes Rita Farlow, the school’s vice president of marketing and communications.

Peterson Hardon in remission, left, and during her final days. Says her father, pictured: “A beautiful young life interrupted with a dismal final outcome.... Ida of all people did not want to die. And Ida never gave up.”

This increase, however, is accounted for in Reva’s analysis. (He compared each case to the rate of cancer in 20- to 29-year-olds in the United States in 2022.) Not only is the rate of cancer at Roanoke unusually high, it has increased by more than the national average over the last decade.

While the Virginia Department of Health (V.D.H.) has said that it doesn’t see “any obvious increase in trend suggesting an unusual pattern of cancer” in Salem, Virginia, where the college is located, in recent Roanoke alumni, the rate of cancer more than quadrupled in the five years between 2017 and 2022 compared to the five years prior. Reva concludes that this increase is statistically significant.

“There is a strange anomaly in cancer occurrence among Roanoke students,” he says.

A New “Lost Colony”

Roanoke College, which shares its name with the mysterious “lost colony” that disappeared without a trace in the late 16th century, is located in Salem, in southwestern Virginia. The liberal-arts school is nestled into the Blue Ridge Mountains, which rise up around red-brick buildings and green lawns, and houses an average of 1,800 students at a time (450 graduates a year).

In 2019, 25-year-old Chloe Svolos Baldwin, Roanoke class of 2015, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, having already watched friends Kalee Perry, class of 2015, and Kelsey Palmer, class of 2016, fight battles with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Wilms’ tumor, a rare pediatric cancer, respectively. “At first we were like, this must be a coincidence,” she tells me, but then she started to think that there was “something happening here—it was just weird that three girls from Roanoke who were all a year apart were … diagnosed.”

“Then Ida and Seth were diagnosed,” says Baldwin, who quickly learned of two more cancer cases among recent Roanoke alumni—Devon Huddleston, class of 2014, had recently beaten thyroid cancer, and Emily Willis, class of 2016, was in remission from a rare soft-tissue cancer. What the hell is happening?, Baldwin remembers thinking. “There were seven of us from this tiny school in Virginia.”

Baldwin decided to reach out to the V.D.H. in March of 2021 requesting a cancer-cluster investigation. In August, the V.D.H. declined her request. “Unfortunately your inquiry would not qualify as a true cancer cluster,” the response read, “since by definition, all of the cases must involve the same type of cancer, or types of cancer scientifically proven to have the same cause.”

The term “cancer cluster” and its technical definition would come to sit squarely at the center of Baldwin’s fight to have Roanoke College investigated for the illnesses she and her fellow alumni came to suffer from.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), a cancer cluster is defined as “a greater than expected number of the same or etiologically related cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a defined period of time.” The burden of proof in these sorts of investigations is incredibly high. In the case of Roanoke, there were several types of cancers involved. Multiple epidemiologists I spoke to agreed with the V.D.H.’s conclusion, with one even going so far as to say that if every student at Roanoke College was diagnosed with a different cancer, she still would not be concerned about a cluster. “Cancer is not contagious,” this person says.

“There is a strange anomaly in cancer occurrence among Roanoke students.”

In December of 2022, Kelsey Palmer died at the age of 29. She had beaten the Wilms’ tumor, but the chemotherapy had given her leukemia. Palmer’s death re-ignited Baldwin’s search for answers. The Virginia Department of Health wouldn’t do anything about this, she thought. So what else can we do?

Baldwin reached out to local lawyers and media outlets. “Nobody got back to us,” she says. “We sort of gave up.” (Baldwin did not reach out to Roanoke College directly, fearing the school’s response and hoping to come armored with professional support.)

Then, just under a year later, Baldwin, in a last-ditch attempt to get someone to pay attention, turned to an unlikely platform: TikTok. She posted a video that 1.5 million people have since watched, telling the story of the Roanoke graduates’ battles with cancer.

Baldwin didn’t name the school in her video—but her viewers guessed it. “Graduated from Roanoke in [20]17 and was talking with my husband about this the other day. Way too many people have been diagnosed,” one person commented. “Wait is it Roanoke? I went there and have lost 2 peers and 3 professors/staff in the last year and it’s very alarming and upsetting,” wrote another.

Baldwin (center, seated) with Palmer (right) and Perry (center, standing). Palmer died of leukemia in 2022, aged 29.

Since uploading the video, Baldwin has learned of eight other Roanoke alumni from the classes of 2011 to 2019 who have been diagnosed with cancer—two more cases of thyroid cancer, one more case of soft-tissue sarcoma, one case of ovarian cancer, one case of testicular cancer, and three cases of skin cancer—bringing the total to 16.

Baldwin stopped being able to keep up with her direct messages on TikTok. Floods of current students and recent alumni reached out, asking about her symptoms and questioning whether they themselves were safe.

It’s those students who have spurred Baldwin, who is currently in remission and works as head of marketing for the cancer survivorship start-up OncoveryCare, to keep looking for answers. “We were all healthy twentysomethings who were all diagnosed with cancer,” she says in her video. “What about all these other kids that are at this college and are potentially exposed? Does nobody care? I care.”

“At first we were like, this must be a coincidence.... [Then] there were seven of us from this tiny school in Virginia.”

The video was widely circulated around Roanoke College, and eventually made its way to the administration. “When we saw Chloe [Baldwin]’s video and heard that she had filed a report with the Virginia Department of Health, we reached out to the VDH to check on any existence and/or status of a report and to ascertain whether the College needed to take any action,” Roanoke’s Rita Farlow says. “The VDH, the official investigating body in such cases, communicated to Roanoke College that there is no evidence for concern about increased cancer rates or a cancer cluster in our college community.”

Farlow told me that Roanoke was aware of about a half a dozen of the cancer cases prior to our conversation, and questions the Mount Sinai statistician Boris Reva’s conclusion about the increased cancer incidence rates. “The way that I’m doing the math, based on your numbers because we don’t have records of those numbers, because there is no reporting mechanism for alumni or even students at the school, and me not being a statistician, I am getting a far smaller incidence-rate average compared to the national average.” It is unclear exactly what “national average” Farlow was referring to.

Farlow answered AIR MAIL’s questions about potential carcinogens and pollutants on campus—the water is provided by the Salem Water Department, which is tested yearly; there are no lead pipes, as far as the school is aware; there are no high-frequency radio towers on campus; when asbestos is found, it is removed.

The one environmental concern that Farlow mentioned the school was aware of is mold, but she added that “tests have never found toxic mold and have never revealed a mold-spore quantity indoors that was higher than the quantity detected in the air outside the building.” Meanwhile, one current Roanoke senior, who asked to remain anonymous until he graduates, is planning to sue the college because of what he describes as a “serious mold problem on campus.”

This student tells me he is suffering from neurological health issues including stroke-like incidents, which he believes could be a result of mold in Roanoke’s student housing, something his hematologist confirmed is possible.

An at-home mold-sampling kit, which he sent to a professional lab for analysis, showed high levels of mold in his bedroom vent and found minor traces of the toxic black mold Stachybotrys in his carpet. “Stachybotrys exposure may be associated with chronic fatigue and immunotoxic and neurologic effects,” says Arthur Lau, of the environmental-disease investigation company Microecologies, who adds that the presence of any amount of Stachybotrys mold whatsoever is “almost always concerning … abnormal and potentially dangerous.” (Lau also points out that “Mycotoxins produced by Stachybotrys have been used as chemical weapons” by the Soviet Union and others during the Cold War.)

Though mold has been proven to damage the immune system, it’s not generally considered a carcinogen. But Roanoke’s dismissal of the toxic-mold question, when both Stachybotrys and another type of mold, Chaetomium—whose link to cancer is currently being researched by scientists—have been found on its premises, raises the question of whether the school is taking sufficient measures to safeguard its students’ health. (“The safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff is of utmost priority. We just want what’s best for our students and our community,” Farlow says.)

Elizabeth Rohweder, the mother of Kyle Rohweder, class of 2019, who lost his battle to a rare soft-tissue sarcoma in 2022, tells me about Kyle’s freshman-and-sophomore-year basement dorm and how when it rained, the dorm would flood. (Roanoke mandates that its students live in campus housing all four years.) “He started to have trouble with his tonsils,” Elizabeth tells me. “Then they got so big that they got removed.”

Kyle’s doctors suspect his cancer, a pleomorphic liposarcoma, began to form at the end of his junior year. He died in June of 2022, at the age of 25. Kyle’s cancer was so rare that the medical team at U.N.C. Chapel Hill had never seen it before.

“All the things that Chloe [Baldwin] is talking about are things we are thinking about too,” Elizabeth says.

A Numbers Game

In Baldwin’s fight to get the Roanoke cancer cases recognized, she’s run up against a confusing obstacle: cancer registries. While the Roanoke alumni are buzzing about these cases, there isn’t any official record of them on campus—or in Salem, with the exception of one student—since the majority were either diagnosed in their hometowns or after graduating.

Salem is located west of Richmond, in coal country. Sandee McGlaun, an English professor at Roanoke since 2006, “was curious about how she got [triple-negative breast cancer] and she ended up doing a sketchbook project,” her widower, Stephen Prisley, tells me. McGlaun lost her battle to cancer in 2021, the second English teacher in Roanoke’s 15-or-so-person department to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which accounts for just 10 to 15 percent of all breast cancers. In her sketchbook project, McGlaun drew train tracks—which transport coal up and down the East Coast, just 300 yards from her house—the coal dust landing on her front door.

Coal isn’t the only environmental factor in the area. Roanoke County has a track record of high levels of PFAs, known as “forever chemicals,” in its water, and industrial plants manufacturing plastics, metals, and railroad products, such as pressure-treated crossties, speckle the area. Thirty-five miles southwest is the Radford Army Ammunition Plant base, historically known for open burning and detonation, practices which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.), release harmful and potentially carcinogenic chemicals into the air.

Yet, despite the potential carcinogens in the environment, the V.D.H. isn’t worried about Salem or the surrounding area because, according to its data, it doesn’t have to be. Baldwin’s latest inquiry to the V.D.H. was met with a long e-mail explaining that, while the incidence rates for four cancer sites in Salem City were higher than the Virginia state average, “we could not see any significant difference.”

Roanoke College has graduating classes of around 450 students, making the chances of its cancer rate about the same as a person getting struck by lightning twice in their lifetime.

The problem with this reasoning is that 15 of the 16 cases of cancer found in Roanoke’s young-alumni pool were not diagnosed in Salem, a fact Baldwin made clear in her inquiry. Yet, even if these cases were included in the count, they wouldn’t meet the cancer-cluster criteria that would spur an investigation.

“Cancer epidemiologists don’t generally think in terms of ‘cancer,’” says Alfred Neugut, a professor of cancer research at Columbia and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “That would be like combining malaria with tuberculosis and with AIDS and with syphilis and calling all of that one entity.”

When Neugut looked at the Roanoke cases, he pointed to the blood-cancer cases, acknowledging that the rate of leukemia in particular was high—with three cases, it was 36 times higher than it should be. But without more cases with the same etymologies, he would attribute these cases to bad luck.

Mount Sinai epidemiologist Emanuela Taioli agrees, and points out that it’s unlikely that the cancers would have developed so quickly from the time of exposure.

“We were all healthy twentysomethings who were diagnosed with cancer.... Does nobody care?”

Recently, North Carolina State University (N.C.S.U.) made headlines when more than 150 of its students and faculty were diagnosed with multiple cases of cancer and tumors, which the media attributed to exposure to levels of carcinogenic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) 38 times higher than the E.P.A.’s building limit in a now shuttered lab. But even with such staggering statistics, Taioli is hesitant to call the events at N.C.S.U. a true cancer cluster. “A lot of dust was raised, but nobody has actually looked at the cases in detail to understand if there is a link with the exposure.”

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center are an example of the inverse situation—known, traceable toxic exposures caused a whole array of cancers that doctors were aware of and could monitor in the months and years following. Yet such statistically “neat” studies are very hard to come by. When I first started working on this story, epidemiologists from Brown University, Boston University, and Columbia University all told me the same thing—don’t get involved in cancer-cluster research, because you almost never find a smoking gun.

Pushing for the investigation of cases such as the Roanoke one has become the life’s work of people like Trevor Schaefer. A pediatric-brain-cancer survivor and activist, Schaefer has successfully lobbied the Senate to require the C.D.C. to include unusual patterns of cancer in its definition of cancer clusters, so that cases like his own—he was one of five children in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, to be diagnosed with brain cancer in a nine-month period—are considered.

“Trevor’s Law was developed after years of my mother and I lobbying for cancer-cluster detection and investigation,” Schaefer tells me. The legislation, which is meant to ensure that the federal government provides financial assistance and coordinates with the states on cancer-cluster investigations, was introduced by California senator Barbara Boxer in 2011 and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016. In 2022, the C.D.C. revised its guidelines in accordance with Trevor’s Law so that the states could no longer dismiss clusters made of multiple different kinds of cancers, which was common practice.

The 16 Roanoke cases would fit under the new criteria, but there’s a problem: whether federal law has the ability to trump state laws in these cases is still contested, so for now it’s up to each state to determine whether Trevor’s Law applies there. “The C.D.C. says the [state health departments] are basically the Wild West,” Schaefer tells me. (Virginia senator Mark Warner and representatives for Virginia’s sixth district, Ben Cline and Robert Krueger, did not respond to AIR MAIL’s requests for comment. Senator Tim Kaine declined to comment.)

For Baldwin and the other Roanoke students still looking for answers, this feels like a dead end. “Survivor’s guilt is very real,” Baldwin says. It’s a devastating echo of Ida Peterson Hardon’s first words to me just a few months prior, when she was reacting to Seth Waxman’s and Kelsey Palmer’s deaths: “This could have and should have been me.”

Adams at her wedding, in November 2022.

In February of last year, Roanoke’s alumni Instagram posted a wedding photo of Marie Adams, class of 2018, and her new husband, Aidan. “We love seeing your special day!,” reads the caption.

“She was diagnosed five days before our wedding,” Aidan tells me over the phone. At 26 years old, Marie had developed triple-negative breast cancer, which is very rare, especially in young white women. She was dead in less than a year.

“It has been painful to accept the reality that I will spend the rest of my life wondering what the hell caused this.”

Clara Molot is a Senior Editor at AIR MAIL

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