Ohio University Alumnus Investigates Child Cancer Cluster

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Journalist Jonathan Walsh was working as a television news anchor and investigative reporter for WTOL in Toledo when his news director brought to his attention a story that was startling in both content and brevity. It was four column inches long and headlined County to Look Into 8 to 9 Cases of Children With Cancer. 

Sandusky County was the county in question, and in particular the city of Clyde. The small city in the heart of the post-industrial rustbelt was reporting an alarming number of childhood cancer diagnoses. The Ohio Department of Health and the Sandusky County General Health District would eventually report that more than 40 children and young adults were a part of what would be deemed the “Eastern Sandusky County Cancer Cluster” in that region.

Fast forward 13 years, and Walsh has done a lot more than just prepare a package on the story for that evening’s 6 p.m. news. He spent years with the families impacted by the cancer cluster, reporting on the developments concerning the situation, ultimately writing a book: Is My Child Next: the Alexa Brown Story.

Alexa Brown was only 11 years old when she died of medulloblastoma cancer in 2009, and it is her story that Walsh focuses on throughout the book. All proceeds from Is My Child Next will benefit Alexa’s Butterflies of Hope, a nonprofit founded by Alexa’s parents that works to provide support for the families of children afflicted by childhood cancers in Northwestern Ohio.

“It’s one of those situations where in such a small population […] you have child after child, after child, being diagnosed with different forms of cancer,” said Walsh, a WOUB alumnus who is now a broadcast journalist for WEWS-TV News 5 Cleveland. “Sometimes it was a brain tumor. Sometimes it was leukemia. Sometimes it was a tumor in a pelvis, but it was all happening at the same time. This medical mystery was like a cloud over everybody’s head, with no answers.”

Jonathan Walsh

Walsh’s reporting was instrumental in kickstarting the investigation into the cancer cluster by authorities. He says that his close relationships with the families impacted by the cancer cases served as inspiration for his work.

“We held the aid agencies accountable for promises that they made — and then a lot of times they weren’t kept,” said Walsh. “By the time agencies really dug their heels into this and started to look, it was far too late. It was years after the fact. It was years after we started really digging into this and trying to tell people about what these families were going through.”

While the source of the childhood cancers remains a mystery and the study conducted on the families impacted by the cancer cluster has since been closed, Walsh hopes that his book will shed some light on the tragic actualities of childhood cancer in America.

“Journalism is a powerful tool and when used correctly, it can be a launching pad. It can be a catalyst for doing the right things,” said Walsh. “Protecting our children is always the right thing to do.”

Buy “Is My Child Next: the Alexa Brown Story” here. Throughout the week, News 5 Cleveland will be providing special coverage of the cancer cluster and Walsh’s work surrounding it. Listen to WOUB’s conversation with Walsh, embedded above.