'Dust Lady' Marcy Borders Dies Of Stomach Cancer: How Did 9/11 Really Affect The Long-Term Health Of Survivors?


An image of a woman covered in dust became one of the most iconic, yet haunting, reminders of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.

The woman in the photograph, Marcy Borders, survived the atrocities of 2001, but died on Monday at the age of 41 after being diagnosed with stomach cancer last year.

Announcing the news of her death, her cousin, John Borders, reportedly said his relative died of "the diseases that (have) ridden her body since 9/11".

Her death has resurfaced discussion about the long-term health impact of the 9/11 attacks and whether those exposed to dust and debris at the scene may have an increased risk of developing cancer, as well as a number of other illnesses.

Borders was 28 at the time of the attacks and working on the 81st floor of the World Trade Center's (WTC) North Tower when the first plane hit.

She managed to escape and survive, but when she was diagnosed with stomach cancer last year, she speculated that the 9/11 attacks were the reason she developed the disease.

"I'm saying to myself, 'Did this thing ignite cancer cells in me?'" she said in an interview with the Jersey Journal.

"I definitely believe it because I haven't had any illnesses. I don't have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes. ... How do you go from being healthy to waking up the next day with cancer?"

At 40, Borders was also extremely young to be diagnosed. According to Cancer Research UK, 95% of people diagnosed with stomach cancer are aged 55 or over.

And this is not the first time 9/11 has been linked with cancer.

Last year, three New York firefighters who worked at Ground Zero died of cancer on the same day, leading many to link their cancers to the dust and smoke they inhaled in 2001.

A public information site developed by the New York City Health Department states that "long-term monitoring of cancer occurrence among WTC-exposed individuals is warranted".

According to the site, research from The New York City Fire Department found that nearly 9,000 firefighters with WTC exposure may be at greater risk for cancer than firefighters who weren’t exposed.

In addition, the WTC Health Program found "higher than expected" prostate and thyroid cancer rates among nearly 21,000 rescue and recovery workers involved with 9/11 operations.

But in 2012, a study led by New York City Health Department and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was said to "raise more questions than it answered" around the links between cancer and the World Trade Center attacks.

The study was one of the largest on the topic, involving nearly 56,000 people enrolled in a registry set up to monitor health effects from those exposed to the aftermath of 9/11.

The researchers compared cancer rates among those who had been exposed to potentially harmful debris, with rates of diagnosis among the general New York state population.

They found that rates of prostate cancer, thyroid cancer and cases of multiple myeloma were all higher among people involved in 9/11 than in the New York state population.

However, the study also found that cancers weren't more common in rescue and recovery workers who had the most exposure, which the researchers noted may contradict the theory that contact with debris and dust was the cause of cancer.

At the time, Donald Berry, a biostatistics professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, pointed out that no increased risks were found for lung cancer – a cancer that might seem most likely to occur after breathing lots of toxic dust and smoke.

What's more, Fiona Osgun, Cancer Research UK’s health information officer, says “there’s no clear evidence that dust causes stomach cancer".

"But there is some limited evidence for asbestos," she told HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

"In the UK the number of stomach cancer cases is going down and there are now around 7,000 new cases diagnosed each year. A Cancer Research UK study showed that 75% of UK stomach cancer cases can be prevented through making healthy lifestyle choices like eating lots of fruit and vegetables and little salt, not smoking, and avoiding certain infections."

Although much of the talk around the long-term health implications of 9/11 has centred around cancer, studies conducted by New York Health Department’s WTC Health Registry suggest that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms are the most common health effect of 9/11.

They estimate that around 20% of adults who were directly exposed to the WTC disaster have suffered symptoms of PTSD - roughly four times the rate of PTSD symptoms typically found in the general population.

As a survivor of the 9/11 attacks, Borders previously spoke about the ways in which her mental health was affected.

"I was convinced Osama Bin Laden was planning more attacks. Every time I saw an aircraft, I panicked. If I saw a man on a building, I was convinced he was going to shoot me," she told the Daily Mail in 2011.

"I started drinking heavily. Then I started drinking a lot more. I couldn’t handle life so I started taking drugs. I started smoking crack cocaine, because I didn’t want to live."

Child Protection sent Borders' children to live with their grandmother and aunt. But in 2011, she quit alcohol and drugs after admitting herself to rehab and regained custody of her children.

It is unclear whether Borders' lifestyle, as opposed to the dust at Ground Zero, may be the reason she developed stomach cancer. Her diagnosis may, of course, have been mere coincidence and related to neither.

Studies have also shown that heart disease and respiratory illnesses may be more common in people who were present during the 9/11 attacks.

However, more research is needed around these links, as well the potential links between cancer and the World Trade Center attacks, before we can draw any definite conclusions.

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