Cannon pediatric cancer study finds higher rate of rare brain tumors

by Vern Evans

Children at New Mexico’s Cannon Air Force Base were no more likely to be diagnosed with brain cancer in recent years than other kids across the country, an Air Force-run study has concluded.

Still, researchers found that children affiliated with Cannon were diagnosed with a diffuse midline glioma, a rare brain cancer, at a higher rate than kids elsewhere. The tumors, which disproportionately affect minors and are often terminal, are also called diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas — or DIPG/DMG for short.

It’s unclear whether it’s a coincidence or a sign of a deeper problem that at least three dependents were diagnosed with the rare disease between 2010 and 2020, while they were living at the special operations hub or after they left, the Air Force said.

“When conducting these studies, the National Cancer Institute tells us that having 16 or more cases of the same or similarly caused cancers provides more stable statistics and reliable results,” Col. Eric Chumbley, the service’s chief of aerospace medicine, said in an April 4 release. “In other words, with fewer than 16 cases, the margin of error is too wide.”

Nearly 800 people are diagnosed with diffuse midline gliomas each year, most of whom are under the age of 15, according to the National Cancer Institute. There are no known causes or cures; around half of those with the condition die within five years.

Cannon launched the study into pediatric brain cancers in January 2023 in conjunction with the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, four months after base leadership learned of parents’ concerns on a Facebook page for military spouses. The base is home to around 7,800 military and civilian employees.

Researchers finished their report in February after consulting cancer experts at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, a leading institution in the field, and the New Mexico Department of Health. Cannon announced the findings in an April 4 press release.

The study considered how many Air Force dependents were diagnosed with brain cancers between 2010 and 2020, while their sponsor served on active duty at Cannon or after they left. Researchers compared those kids to children whose parents are active duty airmen who have not worked at Cannon, as well as civilian children in the U.S. overall.

More than 10,800 dependents under age 20 belong to active duty airmen who were stationed at Cannon between Jan. 1, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2020, the study said. Of those, three were diagnosed with DIPG/DMG, including one in 2010 and two in 2020.

The Air Force previously said it hadn’t found any common threads between those three cases, including the jobs each child’s caretakers held at Cannon or how long they had lived at the base.

Researchers noted they know of a fourth dependent who was diagnosed with DIPG/DMG in 2022, though that person fell outside the study’s parameters.

In comparison, 12 dependents at other Air Force bases were diagnosed with the disease in the same time frame. Overall, at least 89 dependents across the service were diagnosed with a malignant form of brain cancer between 2010 and 2020.

The figures indicate that about 28 of every 100,000 dependents whose sponsor has worked at Cannon are diagnosed with diffuse midline gliomas, according to the report.

That’s far above the diagnosis rate for dependents of airmen who have not worked at Cannon — about 2 in every 100,000 — or for the civilian population, in which about 4 in 100,000 people under age 20 are diagnosed with the condition.

But that stark contrast is likely due to chance, researchers wrote.

In addition to the study’s small sample size, the study noted multiple other factors that make it difficult to ascertain a trend. For instance, because military families move often, it’s tough to determine whether a particular area has contributed to illness.

There are no known environmental or other risk factors linked to diffuse midline gliomas, the study said. Most of those cases are connected to a chromosomal mutation without a known cause, the Air Force said.

“There is no data suggesting a relationship between environmental conditions on base, to include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and DIPG/DMG rates” at Cannon, the base said in its release. “While ionizing radiation is associated with increased rates of pediatric brain cancer in general, there was no note of excessive ionizing radiation exposure among the cases.”

When looking at pediatric brain cancers overall, the Air Force found its children have a significantly lower rate of those diagnoses when compared to the civilian population, and a statistically similar rate of DIPG/DMG diagnoses, the report said.

Air Force researchers didn’t recommend further investigation into whether Cannon could be making children sick, and instead suggested people participate in an international registry of DIPG/DMG cases to identify potential causes.

One enlisted airman, whose son was diagnosed with a diffuse midline glioma in 2020 and died at age 13 in 2021, told Air Force Times she’s unsurprised by the study’s outcome because so much is unknown about the disease.

The technical sergeant’s son was born while she was stationed at Cannon in 2008; the family left in 2010.

But the woman, who was granted anonymity because she is serving on active duty, said she appreciates that the study is spreading awareness that could ultimately help other families who face the same struggle.

“Having pediatricians and parents armed with information on symptoms helps,” she said. “We had missed opportunities which could’ve helped us get into clinical trials quicker.”

Col. Jeremy Bergin, who commands Cannon’s 27th Special Operations Wing, said in the April 4 release that the base would monitor for cases of pediatric brain cancer and ensure they are referred to the international DIPG/DMG database. The wing will also educate its medical providers about the signs and symptoms of those illnesses, he said.

“Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our air commandos and their families,” Bergin said.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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