To Combat the Fallout in Coldwater Creek, Victims and Neighbors Turn to Art — and Community via the River Front Times

When Mary’s painting, “Silent Killer,” hung in the Millennium Student Center at the University of Missouri- St. Louis, she talked to a number of students. Many asked her about the painting’s subject: Coldwater Creek, the nuclear threat that runs right through Mary’s backyard and may be the cause of her cancer.

Some people wondered aloud if the contaminated area is where north St. Louis County’s urban legend of “Bubblehead people” came from. But only one already knew about the creek. Mary, who asked that her full name not be used because she is private about her illness, wants her painting to change that lack of awareness.

“The people that lived here before us both died of cancer. The person to my right, they’re fine except the father did die of cancer. There’s somebody who lives catty corner to me who has cancer.” She lists two more friends who have cancer, in addition to a few of her pets — two cats who died of cancer, a dog with a foot tumor. And then, she says, doctors discovered that both she and her partner had cancer, the diagnoses made within a month of each other.

“We went to radiation together. That was romantic,” Mary says, wryly. She suffered from breast cancer; her partner was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Mary painted 25 small paintings of moths to get through chemotherapy. And then she created “Silent Killer.” She gathered found materials from the creek, then painted over them. Her style is “cartoonish,” which Mary thinks draws people in. “They think it’s going to be funny,” Mary says. It’s not. Instead, people discover paintings that depict the horror and frustration of living somewhere that might be killing you.


When Huffines was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix more than five years ago, “We actually thought we were pregnant.” Since then, she’s opted against chemotherapy and undergone seventeen surgeries. “My stomach is like Swiss cheese,” she adds

No treatment patterns are fully known for her condition because it’s incredibly rare. She was told at the time that the disorder was one in one million, although it’s much more common now.
The frequency of this particular cancer is what set off warning bells for many: nearly 50 cases have been self-reported by people who grew up near Coldwater Creek. According to Dr. Faisal Khan, director of St. Louis County Department of Public Health, there are only about 1,000 cases nationwide each year. In a journal article published last December, Khan calls this incidence rate one of several “huge red flags.”

Huffines has hung on in part by wanting to live her life, but also by embracing religion. “I just wouldn’t be anywhere without my faith,” she says. She says she lives knowing that what happens to her is in God’s hands.

Read more at To Combat the Fallout in Coldwater Creek, Victims and Neighbors Turn to Art — and Community

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