MARTINSVILLE, Ind. - On Thanksgiving of 2015, Debbie Corcoran watched her daughter pull the hair off her scalp in clumps and pile it next to her plate of turkey and mashed potatoes. Debbie got her a trash can.
It had only been a few weeks since Debbie’s daughter, Sydney, was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer in her spine, at age 14.
“I think it’s time to shave my head,” Sydney said.
Before that Thanksgiving, Sydney’s hair was her everything. It had grown past her shoulders for the first time, stretching down her back in a blonde curtain. It was the hair she inherited from her mom.
Debbie told her daughter she’d shave her head with her when it was time. Sydney said it felt like pity, a cancer cliche she finds annoying instead of supportive. When people get cancer, everyone around them shaves their heads. She wanted her mom to keep her hair so she could curl it, braid it, play with it. It seemed unfair to Sydney, having to give up more to the house that may have given her cancer.
After dinner, Sydney’s father held the razor over her head in the kitchen. At first, Sydney laughed. She told her dad she wasn’t sure if she was ready.
“It’s coming out one way or the other,” he said.
He started to shave, and her face contorted. She didn’t have a mirror, so she had to guess what it looked like.
After half of her hair was gone, she reached to touch her head. She screamed.
Doctors told Sydney the cancer’s cause was environmental, from issues the city of Martinsville neglected to tell residents about as, for decades, toxic chemicals spread under the earth.
Dry cleaners and manufacturing companies in the 1980s improperly disposed of chemicals downtown in landfills and in poorly stored metal drums. The toxic chemical tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, seeped into the groundwater and soil.
Martinsville’s water runs from three wells. All wells were tested in the early 2000s, but only the third came back with high levels of PCE. That contamination site, the Pike and Mulberry Street Superfund Site, is the only one currently being remediated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The cleanup is funded by Masterwear Corporations, one of the companies responsible.
PCE is widely known as the dry cleaning liquid. If disposed of properly, there is no issue. However, according to the EPA, both short- and long-term exposure to the chemical can cause dangerous side effects in humans and animals, including several types of cancers.
As time passed, the PCE under the city evaporated into the atmosphere, creating a chemical plume contaminating homes, schools and businesses above the earth.
Sydney has lived most of her life above the contamination. Her house, as well as the elementary and middle school she attended, sit on a chemical plume site.
The city contains four or five sites, meaning many homes could be in the same position, according to information Debbie found independently and with researchers from Purdue University. But no one is sure how many sites there are because they’re hard to map.
Sydney’s treatment has cost around $3 million so far. Debbie struggles to cover the 20% they’re responsible for.
They can’t afford to move out of the house they believe is poisoning them, or out of the city that once said there were no issues with the water.
Debbie said nobody else in the city is taking the contamination as seriously as they should. Despite efforts to rally her neighbors, most have been skeptical.
“You gotta die from something,” one told her.
Sydney’s symptoms started in eighth grade as extreme pain in her back and knees. A childhood playing softball conditioned her to small aches and pains, but this was different.
One night, after a motorcycle ride made the pain worse, she woke up screaming. Debbie took her to the emergency room at IU Health Bloomington, where a doctor told her the joints connecting her spine to her hips were inflamed. She was sent home without a test or blood work and told to take Motrin.
She’d go through a bottle of Motrin a month. In class, she would ask her teachers to be excused so she could pop open the bottle she kept in her locker.
Two months later, Sydney had an MRI at an Indianapolis clinic. Lying on a hard surface for the MRI was excruciating. She wailed the whole hourlong drive home, feeling every bump in the road cut into her spine.
She didn’t lay completely flat for two months, even to sleep. She’d sit up on the L of the couch at her mom’s, surrounded by pillows, watching “The Walking Dead.”
After doctors noticed a mass on her spine, Sydney went back for another MRI. This time, the technicians put pillows in the machine to make her more comfortable. When her doctor lifted her off the table, she bit into his shoulder from the pain.
Sydney’s dog, Mikey, had arthritis. She made quesadillas to share with him on Halloween 2015. It felt right — they were in pain together, so might as well share a meal. When she bent down to feed him, her back got tense. She went to lay down on the couch, and she started to scream.
Sydney had a surgery scheduled to take out the mass on Nov. 3. That day, her doctors found out the mass was a tumor, and it had burst. She was diagnosed with cancer a week later.
After they told Debbie, she walked outside, stood in front of Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis and began to pray. She prayed that God would take her away instead of her daughter, that he would let Sydney heal.
She calmed herself down before going to Sydney’s hospital room. Sydney asked if it was cancer. Her mom nodded.
Sydney’s mind went straight to death. She didn’t want to go through chemotherapy because she had seen what it did to children in the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital commercials. Once while she was getting blood work done at Riley, a little girl walked by. The girl was skinny, pale and bald. Sydney looked at her mom.
“That’s what you want me to look like,” she said. “That’s what you’re wanting to do to me.”
Sydney hated chemo. The type of chemo she had to receive could only be taken one way: directly to the heart. Whenever the chemo was injected through a central line in her chest into her every other week, she called it the red devil.
On the day of her first treatment, Sydney posted on her Instagram.
“I really don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me,” the post read.
Every three months, Sydney had to get an MRI. She would have panic attacks inside the small and loud machine, so she watched a movie during the procedure. She picked the Pixar movie “Up” and watched it every time she went to get an MRI, one constant she could keep for herself now that everything had changed.
She quickly lost friends. Her mom said they probably just didn’t know how to handle the situation. After all, they were just kids.
Now, Sydney feels like everyone her age is too immature for her.
“There’s no way to be a kid again,” she said. “I just hate everything.”
Sydney is 18 and a senior in high school. She’s had to make up 13 months of school.
School has been hard. She would lie on the floor because of the pain. Regular chairs are too hard on her spine, so she uses a cushioned one.
Sydney wasn’t able to finish her eighth grade year. She was passed onto ninth grade anyway.
“‘No child left behind’ my ass,” Debbie said.
Debbie has been fighting local and state governments to change regulations on chemical disposal. She met with state legislators, pleading for them to change laws on selling property on contaminated soil.
She goes door to door asking people if they would allow their house to be tested. She’s had the door slammed in her face, been called crazy. But she believes her daughter’s cancer is evidence enough.
Sometimes, she feels like her daughter hates her for making her stay alive.
When Sydney refused treatment, her mom told her the state could take her away. She’d be forced to live with foster parents, who would make her do treatment. Parents have lost custody of their children in similar situations.
“Forcing your daughter to do something that could kill her was not easy,” Debbie said.
Sydney struggled to eat and developed an eating disorder. At one point, she tried to commit suicide. On one particularly bad night, she went into Debbie’s room at 3 a.m.
She asked her mom: “Why does God hate me?”
Debbie told her daughter that God doesn’t hate her, he’s testing her.
Debbie stepped outside, smoked about 20 cigarettes and came back in. She told Sydney she needed to stay alive to help her learn about what was killing her and try to stop it from killing other people. Sydney thought she was full of it.
Debbie said she frequently gets calls and notifications from someone telling her they or someone they know has cancer or some other life-threatening illness.
“I feel like I’m uncovering bodies every day.”
— Debbie Corcoran
Debbie manned the front door of a town meeting she helped organize Feb. 5, signing in residents and giving them packets of information.
Gary Oakes, the director of planning and engineering, said the city began prioritizing the contamination issue immediately after city administration changed in January.
Officials are working with the EPA to come up with quicker solutions to the contamination. The current proposals may take anywhere from nine to 34 years, much slower than the city wants.
Oakes said Debbie going door to door and helping get houses tested is probably the best thing anyone could be doing. People trust another resident coming into their house more than some EPA official.
“Everyone wants a resolution to the problem,” he said.
Carbon filters were installed in the water system in 2005. But tests run last year by Purdue School of Health Science researcher Sa Liu showed a second issue lies in the ground itself.
Liu recorded high PCE levels in the air inside of homes and in breath samples of 39 residents.
Liu’s study was a pilot. She plans to apply for more funding to continue with tests. She asked participants to spread the word in order to get more volunteers.
“It’s a big public health problem that requires all hands on deck,” Liu said.
Jeremy Kinman, associate technical director at Wilcox Environmental Engineering, Inc., talked at the meeting about a potential solution to the chemical issue.
Kinman’s company has been privately working to clean up one of the chemical plumes in Martinsville, called the O’Neal plume. The remediation is funded by the insurance company of the business to blame, O’Neal’s Clothes Depot Cleaners.
The company placed what it calls a permeable reactive barrier into the ground, and within days, levels of PCE were almost nonexistent, he said. The system puts carbon into the water, and the carbon attaches to PCE. Underground bacteria break down the carbon-attached PCE into harmless ethylene, allowing clean water to pass through.
“You’ll see a massive drop in PCE concentrations in hours,” Kinman said. “It’s that immediate.”
The barriers could be implemented within the next couple months for the rest of the chemical plumes in the city and can work for years. Kinman said if the EPA proceeded with testing, it would work with the companies responsible for the contamination. The city and state wouldn’t have to pay a cent. Oakes said the city is on board with Kinman’s plan.
Several hands shot up in the crowd at the end of the meeting. What neighborhoods are you looking at? Who’s going to pay for all this? Are my children safe?
“This just sounds too good to be true,” one woman said.
For the first two years after she was diagnosed, Sydney couldn’t stand to hear the word cancer. She’s still mad at the city, its people and the companies who made her question whether she’d live to see her senior year. She’s joined her mom in speaking out against those responsible for the chemical plumes.
Sydney has been in remission since Sept. 1, 2016. She still has to see doctors often and go to physical therapy. But she’s started to talk more about cancer and what she went through. The high school has a dance marathon to raise money for Riley children, and Sydney has spoken at it every year.
She has a boyfriend, and makes more of an effort to make friends at school despite how distant she feels from her peers. For the longest time, Sydney didn’t want to talk to other people with cancer. There were other kids at school who had cancers, but she didn’t want to know them. She worried she’d become close to them, and they’d die.
That’s what happened to Roselynn. Sydney met Roselynn during treatments at Riley Hospital when Roselynn was a year old. Sydney said she was the calmest baby on the floor. She never cried, unless she was in pain. She liked to dance for people and would do it up and down the halls.
She’d come into Sydney’s hospital room and open the blinds to see if Sydney was sleeping. If she was, she’d come to Sydney’s bedside and wake her up. She was always smiling.
After a girl in her class, Bridget, was diagnosed a second time with stage 2A Hodgkin’s Lymphoma last year, they started talking. Her doctors told her it was environmentally caused, like Sydney’s.
Sydney sent her chocolate-covered strawberries and talked to her through her treatment. She wants to help those around her cope with something she’s gone through.
She doesn’t hate her mom, and Debbie doesn’t hate her. She’s a teenager, and teenagers sometimes don’t get along with their parents. Some things annoy her, like when her mom meets someone new and she tells them right away that her daughter had cancer. Sydney said she just gets too involved sometimes.
Sometimes, kids will still make fun of her. One girl wouldn’t stop staring at her, then called her ugly and asked if her cancer was back yet. Sydney pushed her desk over and told the girl to stand up and fight. Then the teacher came in.
She hasn’t had a sleepover since middle school because outside germs are bad for her immune system. But she had a friend over for the first time since then in February.
She plans to get a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from IU-Purdue University Indianapolis to become a crime scene investigator. She’s unsure what’s going on with graduation right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes are online. She isn’t able to go anywhere because she’s immunocompromised. She hasn’t seen her boyfriend, Joey, in weeks.
Last October, she got a shoulder blade tattoo of the old couple from the movie “Up,” which she’s now seen more than a dozen times. She tries to stay hopeful.
Debbie is still partnering with researchers to get houses tested, going door to door and hoping someone will want to listen.
She tries to be there for her daughter, even though she’s practically an adult now.
Sydney understands her cancer could come back, or a different secondary cancer could start growing at any point.
“I’m gonna live my life to the fullest because I know I could die next week,” she said. “If I get diagnosed again, I’ll know I really lived part of my life at least.”