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2006 Persons of the Year: Bernie and Marie Kane

By Julia Spitz/Daily News Columnist

Sunday, December 31, 2006 - Updated: 12:36 AM EST

ASHLAND - Kevin Kane wanted the town to know what killed him.

On April 25, almost eight years after his death, a state Department of Health study validated his suspicions, and his parents, Bernie and Marie Kane, fulfilled a promise to their youngest son.

Their work to make the Ashland Nyanza Health Study a reality has also made the Kanes MetroWest Daily News' Persons of the Year for 2006.

"What they were able to do is to mobilize the community," said Jim Murphy, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman.

Others tried, starting as early as the late 1970s.

Ashland Advocates for a Clean Environment was formed by Holly Buckoski. Former resident Bev Dort was another who raised flags of concern about the effects of chemicals from the Nyanza plant, which closed in 1978.

Other residents had questions about cancer rates, but no proof of a link to the plant that operated on Megunko Hill for much of the 20th century.

It was a topic few wanted to discuss.

There were fears property values would plummet and townspeople would never be able to sell their houses. It was also a time when cancer was just beginning to emerge from the veil of social secrecy.

"People didn't want to talk about the C' word," said Marie Kane. "You can draw a parallel to Nyanza. If you didn't see it, smell it, it didn't exist.

"We're all guilty in a way in this town," she said. "Why didn't we pick up the ball and run with it" in the 1970s, '80s or early '90s? "I include myself in that. We should have been more vigilant sooner."

Since the EPA declared Nyanza a Superfund site in 1983, the cleanup has been methodical and slow, stalled at times by budget cuts.

Links between Nyanza and health problems were labeled inconclusive by studies such as a 1994 state Department of Public Health report on kidney and bladder cancer rates.

But when the youngest of the nine Kane children was diagnosed with angiosarcoma, a rare form of lung cancer, in 1997, Kevin was convinced playing near Nyanza caused his illness and the cancers of other childhood friends as well.

Then, "he convinced us, thank God," said Bernie Kane.

"We're all sent here to do a job. Some of us have less time to do it than others," said Marie. "In his short life, Kevin left a legacy we can all be proud of."

Kevin's fight

Through the years, "we were very lucky. Our kids had been very healthy," said Marie, the school nurse at Ashland High School for many years.

So healthy that when Kevin, then 25, started coughing up blood and went for an X-ray, he "didn't even have a baseline X-ray to compare it to."

After exploratory surgery, "we were told not to take him back to the thoracic surgeon, take him right to an oncologist." At Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Dr. George Demetri "diagnosed him that day," said his mother.

He began a regimen of experimental drugs, but after eight months, he needed surgeries at Brigham and Women's to stem the bleeding. On Aug. 31, 1998, Kevin died.

In the year between the diagnosis and his death, Kevin "went on a mission and he worked until he couldn't work anymore," said Marie.

He read books about the various chemical plants that had occupied the spot. He wrote letters to local officials, newspaper reporters, state officials, anyone who'd listen. And when developer Robert Gayner pitched a plan to put houses on the Nyanza site, Kevin publicized his opposition.

His decision to make his private struggle with cancer into a public statement wasn't made lightly.

"I can remember telling Kevin, you have to be prepared. People are going to hate us," Bernie said.

At first, "a lot of people didn't want to find out what we" wanted to know, said Kathleen Morse, Kevin's sister.

But much had changed since the first group of advocates started asking questions.

"A Civil Action," the Jonathan Harr book about cancer links to W.R. Grace in Woburn, had raised awareness. The Nyanza cleanup, slow as it was, had progressed. And a lot of people knew someone battling cancer.

When Ashland High School science teacher Penny Ellis died in March 1998, "a lot of questions came up about her death," said Marie. "We started to take count of how many (people at Ashland High) had cancer. I remember I counted at least 14," including herself, she said.

A Citizens Advisory Committee to focus on Nyanza's legacy was formed shortly after Ellis' death.

And then there was Kevin Kane.

"I think it was because Kevin was very sick. It was right there. It was hard to ignore at this point," and at least three others in his class had cancer, said Marie.

The messengers

Most everyone in town knew the Kane family.

They were active in the St. Cecilia Church parish, Marie serving as a lector, Bernie a eucharist minister and current St. Vincent de Paul Society president, both former CCD teachers.

Both were active in the schools, she as AHS nurse, he a former president of the Ashland Boosters club.

They'd been honored for their civic contributions. She's a past VFW Woman of the Year, he was the town's Citizen of the Year in 1986.

And, with nine children, it was likely someone in an Ashland family went to school with one of the Kane kids Kathleen Morse, Lisa Wisel, Maureen Rice, Chris Kane, Tim Kane, Kelly Lacasse, Michael Kane, Maribeth Rabidou and Kevin.

"We had the support of the town," said Morse, and "even without the town, we had each other."

They were the ones to continue what Kevin initiated with the Citizens Advisory Committee: a Nyanza health study conducted by the state Department of Public Health.

A decision was made to focus on a comparatively small group, Ashlanders who were ages 10 to 18 between 1965 and 1985.

There were concerns about doing such a narrow study, Marie said, but, in the end, "that took eight years. If we did the whole town, we wouldn't be done in our lifetime.

"Each of our kids took the class list of their own class," said Marie, and she started dialing others. "I think I called one woman, God help her, four times in one day."

Fliers were posted around town and state workers helped look for former students through Department of Motor Vehicle records.

"As time went on, it was was frustrating but totally understandable" how long it took to launch the study, said Marie, but in fighting for answers, "having this to hang on to, in a way, kept Kevin alive for me.

"We have nothing but praise for" Suzanne Condon, head of the environmental health division at DPH, and her co-worker Theresa Cassidy. "She kept repeating to us, I will see this through,' and she did."

The next steps

The study of 1,387 participants showed those who swam and waded in water contaminated by Nyanza developed cancer two to three times more often than those who avoided the water.

After waiting for so long, "strangely, it was over very fast too," said Marie. "But it's ongoing too. The problem isn't really over."

What's over is the not knowing.

The conclusions aren't that everyone who ever worked at or played near Nyanza will get cancer, only that those at higher risk should talk to a doctor so any signs of cancer can be detected more quickly.

"Knowledge is power," said Marie. "All we can hope for is those at risk will take heed."

"They've helped make sure both the state and the federal governments don't forget about Nyanza," said state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland.

"It's very helpful for EPA to have people like that in the community," said EPA spokesman Murphy. "If we get community support, it helps us get the job done."

For the Kanes, the fight continues in other ways.

They've been doing Relay For Life, the American Cancer Society fund-raiser for eight years.

"Actually, Kevin was the honorary chair" the first year. "Kevin and I walked the first Survivor Walk' together, three months before he died," his mother said. "I'm a survivor too."

With their team, now known as the Leprekanes, which includes the couple's 27 grandchildren, they've been able to raise about $87,000 for cancer research.

They've also been successful at raising money for scholarships in Kevin's name for students at Ashland High and Keefe Tech, where Kevin, formerly a social worker, was a substitute teacher during his final year of life.

During their quest to fulfill their promise to their youngest son, "People would ask, What's in it for you?' That wasn't even in our mind," said Bernie.

"Money wasn't going to be any good to us," said Marie. "Money wouldn't bring Kevin back."

Helping Ashland residents learn the truth was what they wanted.

It's what they promised Kevin they'd do.

(Information on the Nyanza Health Study findings is available at the DPH Web site, www.mass.gov/dph.

(Julia Spitz can be reached at 508-626-3968 or jspitz@cnc.com.)

Ashland's Bernie and Marie Kane are the 2006 MetroWest Persons of the Year.

(Marshall Wolff/Daily News photo)

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