My Child Is Fighting Cancer Because Of A Contaminated Testing Site

by Melissa Bumstead
Originally Published: 
A child with cancer wearing a pink hat, sleeping on the bed while hugging her doll in a pink dress
Melissa Bumstead

It’s the anniversary of Gracie’s cancer relapse, but it hasn’t seemed to have any effect on her. She’s only looking forward. It’s hard for me though. One year ago today almost destroyed me and I’m struggling to breathe through the pain of the memories.

We were going to run away. Our offer on a home in Indiana had just been accepted and we were preparing to pack. We were going to outrun cancer, flee the Santa Susana Field Lab that we believe caused these health problems, and start over where we thought we’d be safe. But Grace woke up with arm pain as severe as if she had broken her arm. We rushed her to the hospital.

I knew before the doctor said anything. My mommy instincts were confirmed by the sorrow in her nurse’s eyes. Gracie had relapsed with PH+ leukemia. It was her second time fighting an incredibly rare and aggressive cancer. We called our realtor and canceled our new home from the hospital hallway. We knew her best chance at survival would be at our local children’s hospital and we knew our finances would go towards medical bills instead of moving.

Melissa Bumstead

Her doctors intentionally didn’t tell us her survival rate. I think it’s because it would have stolen all our hope and hope was already scarce as it was. This time was so much harder than the first time she had cancer. We lived at the hospital for over four months while she received and recovered from a bone marrow transplant to save her life.

She had intense chemotherapy and full-body radiation meant to destroy both the cancer and her bone marrow. Her mouth was covered with ulcers. It became too painful for her to eat, drink, or talk. She even refused ice cream. She had fevers and nightmares. She had 11 blood transfusions. She couldn’t walk, bathe, or dress herself. The nausea was constant and she vomited often. She was addicted to morphine, but there were days when she still felt the pain. She was isolated to her hospital room and couldn’t be visited by friends.

She was old enough to ask, Will I die? Did I do something bad to make this happen? Those questions nearly tore me apart.

I became really afraid the day she didn’t cry or complain when receiving shots. I was afraid she’d lost the will to live. She didn’t give up, and by the grace of God, she survived.

According to an investigative report by NBC News 4 in Los Angeles, “For decades, scientists and staff at SSFL experimented with new types of nuclear reactors, advanced rocket systems and futuristic weapons. While this research helped launch Americans into space and provided a better understanding of nuclear power, years of mishandling dangerous radioactive materials and chemicals has also left a toxic legacy for generations of people living near the site. The scientists are now gone, but acres and acres of radioactive and chemical contamination remains right above the neighborhoods of thousands.”

When the site was initially developed by North American Aviation in the 1940s, it was in a remote part of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. But due to rapid population growth, today, there are more than a half million people living within 10 miles of the site, and thousands who live within two miles of the lab.

In 1959, the site suffered a partial nuclear meltdown, and according to KQED, over the years, there were repeated chemical spills, accidental releases of more radioactive material and the open-air burning of poisonous chemicals and gases.

Both NASA and the Department of Energy are behind on fulfilling their obligations to clean up the site, and Boeing (which assumed three-quarters of the lab grounds when it acquired Aerojet Rocketdyne in 1996) has fought against rigorous cleanup requirements.

As long as the Santa Susana Field Lab remains contaminated with radioactive and chemical waste, more children here will continue to get cancer. It’s one of America’s worst nuclear meltdowns, but no one seems to know about it. We didn’t know about it when we moved here, even though we live only five miles away. But after Grace became one of 50 other kids with cancer in our community, we learned more than we ever hoped to know.

There were several radioactive meltdowns, but no containment structures. Blatant mishandling of carcinogenic waste but no remediation. Sixty years of coverups and payoffs. Our community had been promised it would be cleaned completely by 2017, but nothing has even begun.

It all comes down to money, and our children are paying the price. This is a tragedy, and an absolute outrage.

A self-reported map

that shows the 50 kids with cancer that I know personally, though I suspect it’s actually much higher than 50.

Some will survive. Some, like our friends Bailey and Hazel, will not. And the truth of that leaves me broken. The thought of more children needlessly suffering is unbearable. My heart is raw and bleeding. The pain in our community is unbearable. Every time I see another child with cancer, I only see Gracie. And I grieve.

I grieve that my daughter lost her childhood and that she has suffered more than most adults — physically, mentally and spiritually. It’s not fair that she has suffered so much. It’s just not fair.

I grieve her friends who died. I grieve that there can be no promise of safety for my daughter, because cancer is a savage monster who does not consider the prayers of parents. It can return without reason.

I grieve that NASA, Boeing, and the Dept. of Energy — as I and others believe — chose money over protecting my daughter. I feel I’ll lose my mind from the grief. Some days I cry until I can’t breathe. I feel like I can’t breathe as I write this.

I just want to scream, Why didn’t they protect her? She’s just a kid! Why won’t they protect our kids? They’re kids! For heaven’s sake, they’re just kids!

I’m trying so hard to trust God again. I am leaning heavily on my husband, and our friends and family, but today the memories of pain and fear are terrorizing me. I’ve been attending Celebrate Recovery, seeing my therapist, and began treatment for depression, but I still feel like my heart weighs ten thousand pounds. My heart aches. I physically feel it right now. It feels like my heart will bleed through my chest.

Still, I will choose to hope. I choose to find the joy in my children’s smiles today, in their love, in my love for them. I will choose to live one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace…even if it means staying here, in West Hills, and fighting for the Santa Susana Field Lab cleanup, even if it daily resurfaces my pain and fear.

I started Parents vs. SSFL after I kept meeting families at the hospital who were also our neighbors. Parents vs. SSFL is a grassroots group of concerned parents and residents who demand compliance with cleanup agreements signed in 2010 that require a full cleanup of all radioactive and chemical contamination at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. They have joined with other longtime cleanup advocates, including Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, Committee to Bridge the Gap, The Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, and elected officials such as the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the City of Los Angeles, Congresswoman Julia Brownley and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Our petition has several hundred thousand signatures, all

demanding the full cleanup of the site.

Because if there’s anything I can do to prevent another child suffering like Gracie did, then today on her anniversary I memorialize it… I will have courage. I will do what I can.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference. ~Reinhold Niebuhr

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