Hi Ppls here’s Article and links mentioned on this subject – Mick Raven
ABC cancer cluster: 10 years since Toowong studio shut down
May 6, 2016
Jo Stone, Nadia Farha, Anne Debert and Lisa Backhouse. Picture: David Kelly.
ABC cancer cluster: 10 years since Toowong studio shut down
On a hot afternoon before Christmas, a group of workers were asked to clear their desks – immediately – and leave the building many of them had worked in for their entire careers. Everyone was given a cardboard box and told to take everything they needed, because there would be no going back inside the building. Ever.
There was an audible gasp at the news. Some women started crying. As if trapped in a story in which an iron door clangs loudly as it closes, the workers left the building. There were Christmas decorations still hanging over doorways, strung across desks, and a shocked sense of disbelief.
Many of the workers, specifically the women, felt scared, others were just angry. It had taken years – precisely 12 since the first of a dozen women was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994 – for management to recognise that the building on the banks of the Brisbane River at Toowong, in Brisbane’s western suburbs, was unsafe.
Within hours of a report revealing that the likelihood of the breast cancer cluster occurring by chance in the building was a million to one, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – the building’s owner and employer of the 500 men and women who worked in it – ordered its evacuation.
As the tenth anniversary of that December evacuation approaches, 18 women in total have been diagnosed with breast cancer. In September 2014, the first – and only – woman died (it was her wish to remain anonymous, even in death). All 18 women – including the deceased woman whose family received death benefits – lodged compensation claims with the ABC’s workers’ compensation insurer, Comcare, under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, and six claims are still open, with ongoing medical and incapacity payments.
Today, three of those women are gathered on the back veranda of a home belonging to one of them. These are the three described by former ABC producer’s assistant Deb Ormerod – the first woman diagnosed in 1994 – as “courageous … they took the flak for all of us”.
They’re laughing and ribbing each other, because one is shy about revealing her age. “’Fess up, love. It’s a privilege. We’re alive, that’s something to celebrate for sure,” says Nadia Farha, who cheerfully admits to being 49. She was 35 years old, and the mother of two young children, when she was diagnosed in 2002. It was not for herself that she felt most alarmed but for her children, Dominic, now 20, and Gaby, now 18, who were just starting school at the time.
“Can you believe it? Ten years!” Farha continues, holding up one hand. “High fives! That’s awesome!”
Lisa Backhouse, 47, and Jo Stone, 42, slap their palms together happily – three friends, three survivors, happy to be middle-aged, possibly spreading a bit around the middle, possibly more wrinkled than before. The tears only come when they remember their lost friend and colleague, loved not only by them but by many.
The high fives celebrate not only their individual survival but everything they have been through, all the pain and love that came to them personally and to everyone touched by the events of a decade ago. The high fives contain sombreness and love, too, for their lost colleague: the past and the future, palms together, forever combined.
ABC news staff stage a walkout from the Toowong studios in July 2006.
THE CLUSTER UNCOVERED AT TOOWONG IN 2006WAS A world-first. According to Queensland Health, the term “cancer cluster” describes the occurrence of a specific cancer in more than the expected number of cases within a group of people in the same location over a period of time. Clusters are notoriously difficult both to define and to definitively confirm because cancers in groups can also occur randomly.
Staff staged a walkout in July 2006 and passed a vote of no confidence in management over their handling of the issue. Outgoing ABC managing director Mark Scott (who left last month when his term expired) had only been in his new job a few days when he was told about the large number of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Brisbane. He immediately organised a panel of experts to investigate and six months later, on December 21, the panel handed down its third progress report.
The report – which became known colloquially as the “Armstrong review” – was a bombshell: the Independent Review and Scientific Investigation Panel (comprising chair Professor Bruce Armstrong, then at University of Sydney; Professor Joanne Aitken, then at Queensland Cancer Council; Professor Malcolm Sim from Monash University; Dr Norman Swan of the ABC’s Health Report, with contributions by a staff reference group including Farha) found that the risk of breast cancer in women working at the ABC at Toowong from January 1, 1994, to June 30, 2006, was “six times higher than that in the general population of women in Queensland” and that there was a “one in a million probability that the observed or a greater number of cases of breast cancer might arise simply by chance”.
Within hours, Scott decided to vacate his staff from the Toowong premises.
“Breast cancer clusters like this hadn’t been found elsewhere in the world,” he told the ABC’s Australian Story in 2007. “I thought, ‘Well, we’re going to have to move, and we’re going to have to move very, very quickly’ … As managing director, am I going to back the million-to-one shot that it’s chance, or the far more likely odds that there’s something there even though we don’t necessarily know what it is? You can’t make decisions based around the million-to-one proposition.”
Outgoing ABC managing director Mark Scott had only been in the job a few days when Brisbane staff staged a walkout of the Toowong studios.
In the decade since, Scott has remained close to participants and flew up from Sydney for the late ABC employee’s funeral in 2014. He tells Qweekend he remembers the events of 10 years ago as “a difficult and confronting time for the staff that worked at the Toowong site … they were dark days”. He says he remains full of admiration, however, for the way everyone worked so constructively with the Armstrong review “as it attempted to understand the scale of the problem”.
“The way the staff rallied when we decided we needed to abandon the site was extraordinary – suddenly serving Queensland from eight makeshift locations around the city,” Scott says. “I think my happiest day at the ABC was when we opened the new building at South Bank, a state-of-the-art facility in the best possible location. It was a fitting home for our staff who had been through so much.”
But to get from those dark days of 2006 to that shiny new view out the window of the ABC South Bank building today – where staff moved in 2012 after the Brisbane floods delayed construction in 2011 – has involved struggle and tragedy, as well as much joy.
On the joyous side of the ledger are Stone’s two children with her husband, former ABC employee turned communications specialist Paul Stone: Edie, 6, an IVF baby, and Leo, 3, conceived naturally after “a good bottle of Shiraz”. They are the beautiful children she feared she may never have because of her treatment.
Then there’s ABC radio producer Anne Debert, now 60, diagnosed in 1998 when she was 43 and she and her husband, Len Debert, were up to their ears in parenting four kids. Debert is still happily producing for radio, working out of the new South Bank building looking over the Wheel of Brisbane and the brown slap of Brisbane River.
“A lot of people who work here now don’t know I was one of the women,” she says. “I don’t mind. I’m just getting on with my life. I sort of want to forget it, really. It’s not out of callousness, I’ve just been getting on with my life, you know. You listen, you take your medicine, and you get on with it.”
Debert underwent chemotherapy, radiation, a lumpectomy and took cancer medication for five years. “You’re never really cured, but as each year progresses, the better off you are,” she says. “I’m alive, that’s the main thing.”
The only other diagnosed woman still working at the ABC is 72-year-old news operations assistant Marg Stewart, treated in 2004, who is also in excellent health and has no plans for retirement. In a tragic turn of events – unrelated to the ABC cluster – Stewart lost her only daughter, 41-year-old Amanda, to breast cancer in 2013.
Jo Stone, Ann Debert, Lisa Backhouse and Nadia Farha pictured in 2005. Picture: David Kelly
The last ex-Toowong employee to be diagnosed with breast cancer was Amarita Kinnoo in 2010. A former Brisbane journalist, Kinnoo, 44 when she was diagnosed, now works in communications for a Melbourne council.
While the untold story of how the women fought for compensation, for happiness – for their very lives – is ultimately a triumphant one, the loss of one of their number casts a passing veil across the brightness of the day.
ON THE SHADOW SIDE OF THE LEDGER, IT SEEMS LIKELY THATthey – and us – may never know the cause, or causes, of the cluster. Queensland Health confirms “epidemiological and environmental assessments often result in inconclusive evidence”.
However, since no further tests or investigations are taking place – of either the abandoned 1.5 hectare site, bought for $430 million by Sunland and approved for development last year by Brisbane City Council for three highrise apartment towers, or of the cancers themselves (studies by Dr Glenn Francis on the women’s tumours in 2009-10 ceased when he left his role at Princess Alexandra Hospital as director of pathology) – finding an identifying cause now seems virtually impossible.
Staff remain sceptical of the report’s findings given that two of the three radon monitors, which measured the ionising radiation exposure in the building were “lost” during the Anderson review and that measurements of ELF (extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields) were taken outside the newsrooms busiest production times. The building itself was demolished in 2014, taking with it the last of its secrets.
Lisa Backhouse said a Queensland Health inspection of the studio in 2005 was “very disappointing”. Picture: David Kelly.
IF IT WAS SCOTT WITHIN ABC MANAGEMENT WHOFINALLY acknowledged the magnitude of the problem, it was of course the women themselves who joined the dots in recognising the problem in the first place. It was them, too, who agitated for action and acknowledgment. This is the part of their story that has never been told.
Backhouse, now national executive manager in corporate affairs for a national finance company, remembers she, Stone and other concerned staff organised an inspection by Queensland Health in May, 2005.
“They came in and had a walk around, then declared the site safe. It was very disappointing,” Backhouse says. “I remember meeting them at Toowong and sitting down and drawing out a mud map. I drew the desk we all worked at, the chairs, and I marked crosses (to represent the seven staff members who sat in them who had been diagnosed with breast cancer) and then I said, ‘Now, would you let your daughter sit in one of those seats?’ They just looked at me. I think we can say that up until Mark Scott arrived it was very difficult to get any traction.”
Stone nods vigorously. “Would you guys agree that’s why we had to get the lawyers involved? No one would take us seriously until we had support from the MEAA (Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the journalists’ union). It wasn’t until there was a mass walkout from the ABC site, following another diagnosis, that the situation was taken seriously.”
Shine Lawyers also became involved, specifically because Stone’s husband, Paul, happened to be working there at the time on its communications team.
According to the three women, the lawyers were eventually able to convince Comcare to accept medical expenses, but when it came to actually lodging claims for medical treatment and follow-up, Comcare wasn’t geared to deal with breast cancer as a workplace injury.
Farha – who coincidentally also now happens to work in communications at the same national financial institution as Backhouse – explains what happened next: “A mammogram, for example, wasn’t part of the Comcare language. They hadn’t dealt with the issue before – it was like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.”
Nadia Farha said then-premier Anna Bligh supported the ABC staff in Parliament. Picture: David Kelly.
She says they knew they had to take it further and, journalists being journalists, they advocated on their own behalf. “We approached the premier (then Anna Bligh) in 2007 and got a meeting. She was very supportive and stood up in Parliament.” Bligh spoke passionately and with real conviction about ABC staff being “virtually asked to forget about the dark cloud of breast cancer, and forced to work in substandard and unsafe conditions”. It was Bligh who arranged a top-level meeting with Comcare’s leading executives and the then-minister for employment and workplace relations (and deputy prime minister), Julia Gillard. Backhouse says it was all done very quietly. “To Gillard’s credit, she recognised the problem and worked to reshape the relevant sections of the scheme so that future workplace (breast) cancer sufferers would not have the same issues. We were very grateful for the support – it was women helping women.”
Comcare, the ABC and the women themselves declined to reveal the extent of any ex-gratia payments but Comcare statements confirm it continues to pay associated medical expenses for screening and treatment concerned with the breast health of past and present female employees.
The Comcare email statement to Qweekend states that the insurer had “accepted liability for all the Toowong claims for workers’ compensation. Fifteen of these employees also sought a Permanent Impairment (PI) lump-sum benefit, with three initially denied for PI but later accepted on reconsideration. This was due to complexities around Permanent Impairment thresholds that were later resolved”.
But Stone says their fight was “never about monetarycompensation. The fight was about getting future care paid so if the cancer came back we would have that financial support for medical expenses”. Backhouse agrees. “No amount of money would ever make up for the physical, psychological and emotional trauma that we and our families endured and continue to live with.”
All these years later, the three main players in the ABC drama are still keen to protect their privacy and that of their families, and to avoid rehashing painful and sensitive issues. Stone – who today works as Queensland media manager for Maurice Blackburn Lawyers – says “the important thing for us (in telling our story) is that we were never looking for anyone to blame. We wanted answers. We pushed and pushed for answers”.
“And justice,” adds Farha, “in terms of Comcare. We didn’t want other women who may have found themselves in a similar situation – or men – to have to go through that process. I’m really proud of what we were able to achieve.”
Backhouse: “I’m really proud that we’ve been able to get on with our lives as well as we have, to bring up our families.”
Stone: “To be able to have families, and to live to raise them, was certainly something we didn’t think we could do at the time.” Stone was only 31 when she was diagnosed, and fearful she would never go on to have children.
“What we want to do is show people who have been diagnosed today that you can go forward, you can survive these things, you can have a life,” says Backhouse. Her sons, Michael, now 19, and Curtis, 17, are both university students. Until her treatment in hospital in 2004, she had never spent a night apart from them. “They were so little,” she says, her eyes filling.
Dr Bruce Armstrong, adjunct professor at the School of Population Health at UWA.
IN 2010, PROFESSOR BRUCE ARMSTRONG,NOWadjunct professor at the School of Population Health at the University of Western Australia, told Qweekend it was impossible to say whether women who previously worked at the Toowong site still had an elevated risk of breast cancer. “To be able to answer that question, you actually need quite a long period of time to elapse … a minimum of five years, and preferably 10 to be sure,” he said.
Now those 10 years are up. What are his views on the cancer cluster today?
“Over the years since the breast cancer cluster investigation, I’ve come more and more to believe that this cluster was a chance occurrence. No scientifically plausible explanation (other than chance) was found at the time and none has emerged since,” he says.
“Highly improbable things do happen. In this case, it’s the degree of clustering at the ABC that is the improbable event, not the occurrence of breast cancer.”
Armstrong argues that cancers vary randomly and clusters regularly appear and disappear but are mostly unnoticed.
“Cancer cluster investigations very rarely ever find a cause, no matter how improbable the cluster appears.”
But Roger Singh, a partner at Shine Lawyers, which represented the women, believes it is a travesty for Armstrong to now distance himself from his original findings.
“Statistically, the number of breast cancer diagnoses from this workplace was exceptionally high in comparison to any other similar employment environment; asserting that the Toowong worksite was not causative of the cluster defies evidence and logic,” he says.
Singh says he shares the women’s “overwhelming desire to find answers” and to understand how and why it happened, if only to ensure the same mistakes never happen again.
According to a statement by Queensland Health, there are currently no cancer clusters under investigation and the majority of suspected clusters “are resolved during the initial consultation phase and do not go any further”.
Between 2002 and 2010, there were seven investigations and a further two between 2011 and 2014. No investigations have been registered in 2015 or 2016.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about cancer, and specifically breast cancer,” Backhouse says.“
Jo Stone and her two children Edith, 6, and Leo 3. Picture: David Kelly
We were really hopeful at the time that our situation – as dreadful as it was – might have provided some impetus to be able to unlock some of the causes, or even a cause, or identify something that might help to find a way forward.”
In the 10 years since the Toowong site was vacated, huge strides in breast cancer research have been made. Dr Paul Mainwaring, Associate Professor at the University of Queensland and consultant medical oncologist for Icon Cancer Care, tells Qweekend, “We are (now) bursting with new knowledge on the causes behind breast cancer”.
Mainwaring says research has now identified different signatures for different causes (for example, tobacco smoke and ultraviolet light). “This is enabling us to reverse-engineer our understanding of the causes and develop blood tests to screen for cancer,” he says.
For now, Stone, Farha and Backhouse accept there may never be definitive answers for them and the other women.
“There was always the possibility it was a chance occurrence, but the chance was one in a million,” Backhouse says. “We’re very grateful that the ABC decided not to take a risk with our lives and the lives of their staff.”
“Yes,” agrees Farha, “we’re really grateful we’re alive and we continue to embrace every moment.”