Haylie Peacock and Paxton Fisher grew up together in Columbia Falls, the gritty industrial town along the Flathead River that sits just beyond the untamed wilds of Glacier National Park.
Like so many other towns of its ilk, recent decades have been unkind to the industries that once dominated this place and its economy. The Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. stopped production in 2009 after 57 years in operation and was later designated an EPA Superfund site, and the former Plum Creek plywood plant and lumber mill was shuttered seven years later, shortly after the company merged with Weyerhaeuser.
In some ways, the last few years have seen a rebirth of Columbia Falls, with hotels, restaurants and bars popping up to serve the surging number of tourists taking advantage of the region’s year-round outdoor recreation opportunities, but even as those changes take hold, this town has retained its blue-collar spirit and sense of community. Peacock and Fisher grew up in a place where just about everyone knew everyone else. They played together on soccer teams and on the playground, went through school together, and in October 2016, Fisher and Peacock were both wrapping up their fall sports seasons as high school seniors. Fisher had captained the Columbia Falls High School boys soccer team to the second round of the state tournament and Peacock finished in the top 50 at the state cross country championships in Kalispell.
But it was Peacock’s sister, Kimberly, who stole the show at that state meet, streaking across the finish line in second place as a freshman. The next Wildkat finisher was then-sophomore Genevieve DeLorme, who finished 17th, a performance that was extra-special for the team since her older brother, Gabby, had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia a year earlier. A football player for the Wildcats, Gabby’s diagnosis galvanized the community in the same way they had come together to support Taylor Peterson and her family a few years earlier. Peterson, who played volleyball in high school, passed away in 2012 after being diagnosed with cancer in her jawbone.
Gabby DeLorme would survive his bout with the disease, but it was far from the end for Columbia Falls. In February 2017, Fisher was told he had a particularly destructive form of esophageal cancer, and the 18-year-old died just two months later, sending shockwaves through the school and the town at large.
“It was weird and scary and I was really confused when Paxton was diagnosed because I didn’t really think that after Gabby and after Taylor that it was going to happen again, and it did (to Paxton),” Kimberly Peacock said. “And then I never, ever thought it would happen to me.”
“And then it did.”
For a while, something didn’t feel right to Kimberly, an active and overachieving straight-A student. She followed in her father Jim’s footsteps as a runner, watching an old VHS tape of him winning a state cross country championship in high school, and she joined her dad on runs through their neighborhood from an early age. But even as she earned all-state finishes in a couple races during the track-and-field season, she told her mom, Heather, that something was wrong.
“The symptoms of leukemia are kind of vague,” Heather said. “She had swollen lymph nodes in her neck but then they went away. She was really tired and she had some aches in her legs, but she was a runner — all runners have aches in their legs.”
The family initially suspected Kimberly had mononucleosis, but she demurred and even speculated that she had lymphoma after a quick search of her symptoms on WebMD.
Kimberly didn’t have lymphoma, but she did have acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the same disease that afflicted Gabby DeLorme. It’s also the same cancer that the 4-year-old daughter of Zeremy and Jamie Moss, also of Columbia Falls, was diagnosed with in the same summer of 2017. Kimberly received her diagnosis on July 28 that year, less than four months after the death of Paxton Fisher.
“With her being diagnosed so soon after Paxton’s passing, her thoughts are immediately, ‘I have cancer; we just had a kid with cancer and he died,’” Heather said. “So what was forefront in her mind is, ‘Am I going to die?’ Because that was the experience we just had. And so that made things more terrifying because that’s what she knew. You get cancer and you pass away.”
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is actually among the more treatable forms of childhood cancer, but that’s only if chemotherapy is effective and the treatment progresses without complications. None of that happened for Kimberly, and the resulting year-plus since July 2017 has been the kind of nightmare no family should ever have to endure. Kimberly has spent three stints in the Intensive Care Unit, traveled to Stanford University for a fairly new cellular treatment and, when that was only partially successful, endured a hellish bone marrow transplant in April 2018 and spent months afterward in a Denver hospital.
“You put your head down and go because you don’t have any other option,” Heather said.
One of the greatest scares for the family came shortly after the bone marrow transplant, when Idiopathic Pneumonia Syndrome struck Kimberly. Heather searched for information online and found a website that told her the mortality rate for people with IPS is 50 to 90 percent. She closed the browser immediately.
At certain points in the days and weeks that followed, Kimberly was intubated, placed in restraints in her hospital bed and hooked up to as many as 12 pumps simultaneously, all doing various jobs to keep her disease-ravaged body alive. She drifted in and out of consciousness while her dad sat by in the hospital room, explaining to a “terrified” Kimberly where she was and what was happening each time she woke up, only to have to do it again an hour later when another round of medicine wore off. Kimberly has few memories of those days, saying she has “full weeks, months at this point with all of my combined ICU stays, that are just gone. I have no idea what happened other than what my parents tell me.”
From February of this year through early August, Kimberly spent just one week at home between her trips to Stanford and Denver. Jim, a teacher at the high school and the head cross country coach, and Heather, a pharmacist, have exhausted their vacation days to travel with their daughter, and Kimberly still needs to go back to Denver every two weeks for additional observation. She looks strong these days, stronger than she has been in a while, but she is far from out of the woods. Her immune system is highly compromised and she is taking her junior year course load at home since she has not been medically cleared to return to the school building.
“(Looking forward) tends to get my hopes up, and I don’t like to do that because I’ve had too many setbacks and been crushed, emotionally, too many times,” Kimberly said.
Four cancer cases among student-athletes at one high school, especially at a school with an enrollment of about 610, does not feel like a coincidence. But scientists do not traffic in feelings.
In February, members of the Columbia Falls community contacted the Flathead County Health Department, concerned about the four cancers occurring in quick succession. That triggered an epidemiological review conducted by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services based on the state’s Central Tumor Registry, and the result of that study belied the feeling that something other than bad luck was to blame.
“We did not see an increased number in the pediatric range in Columbia Falls,” Deputy Flathead County Health Officer Kerry Nuckles said, referring to the state’s research. “We had some conversations back and forth about what those numbers might mean, and I do believe this is an ongoing process for them because they’re always looking for those spikes.”
The data analyzed went only as late as 2016, meaning Kimberly and the Mosses’ daughter’s cases were not factored in numbers that were, according to the study, not “significantly higher than the expected number of cases.”
“The piece that I just like to reinforce is, while every pediatric case is tragic, we do expect to see some pediatric cancer cases,” Nuckles said. “We just want to make sure that we don’t have more than we would expect, based on our population.”
“The numbers are always reviewed, and so that state-level office is always looking at new data as it comes available every year,” she added.
Joe Russell, the former Flathead County Public Health Officer, said the small number of cases and small size of the community of Columbia Falls makes for a difficult statistical analysis. For example, from 2010-14, the state’s report estimated there would be 5.2 expected cancer cases among residents 24 years old and younger, while six were observed in Columbia Falls.
“Unless you have 10 to 15 cases, it’s very hard to build an association,” Russell said. “And oftentimes exposures to (carcinogens) were years ago. Generally it takes years to become sick and it’s really difficult to formulate epidemiological rates to the state.”
Russell continued that even if a cancer cluster is discovered, it does not necessarily mean anything other than a string of unfortunate coincidences.
“If you saw a bunch of cancers that popped up in the same area in generally the same timeframe, yes, you could call it a cluster, but you have to investigate to see,” he said. “All a cluster says is I need to do an investigation.”
And, to be clear, the cases discovered in Columbia Falls do not represent a cluster since the total number of cases is not significantly higher than the expected numbers. Still, Russell did say that four cancer cases at Columbia Falls High School over five years “doesn’t sound normal.”
The bottom line is that, to this point, nothing scientifically connects the cancers that have afflicted the student-athletes to each other or the community they grew up in. At the same time, as unsatisfying as it might be, there’s also nothing that says definitively that they aren’t connected, and that’s a cause for speculation in Columbia Falls.
“I had a parent approach me, a person I’ve known for years, and she said that after Kimberly was diagnosed the big topic when anybody gets together is, ‘Whose kid is next?’” Heather said. “And she’s like, ‘That’s really scary. You wonder if it’s going to be yours.’”
“We don’t know if there is an industrial impact that led to this stuff,” Jim said. “Anybody can get cancer, exposed to nothing or exposed to other things, and other people can be exposed to all kinds of crazy stuff and (live to be) 100 years old. It makes you ask questions, and I don’t know if we ever get answers. I don’t know if the other families that have dealt with this get their answers.”
“It’s important for us to know why, but I think it’s more important to know why so that we can help prevent further cases,” Kimberly said. “Just because I’ve gone through it and you know how hard it is, you really, really don’t want it to happen to another person, another kid, and destroy another life or completely change another one or take (another) one. We don’t want that, and so if there’s anything we can do to help that, I think that we should look into it.”
As the Columbia Falls community searches for answers, the Peacocks have been overwhelmed by the support they have received from their fellow community members. They post regular updates on social media about Kimberly’s condition, and an outpouring of goodwill has washed over them. When, a few months ago, the family needed to remove the carpet on the main level of their house because of Kimberly’s weakened immunity, 25 people showed up to get the job done, including complete strangers. A former neighbor mowed the family’s lawn, without being asked, all summer while Jim was in Denver with Kimberly. New floors went down, the walls were painted, and events have been held throughout town to benefit the family. Teachers at Columbia Falls High School donated vacation days to Jim so he wouldn’t miss a paycheck while he traveled for Kimberly’s treatments.
Support has come from outside of Columbia Falls, too. The running community has kept the Peacock family in their minds, with monies donated from fundraisers in Townsend and Eureka in just the last few months. During Kimberly’s CAR-T treatment at Stanford, the Cardinal women’s distance running team stayed in close contact with her, and when Kimberly was in Denver, Cardinal All-American Elise Cranny, a Colorado native, paid her a visit.
“I got a lot of jealous looks from kids on my floor when the mail came in,” Kimberly said, smiling, of her time in Denver.
“The community of Columbia Falls, oh my gosh,” Heather said. “This is a blue-collar town, this a hard-working town, but you have a kid that has some health issues and they have totally rallied around her. It’s been very humbling … We’re just in awe.”
Kimberly plans to return to school no later than the beginning of her senior year next August and looks forward, more than anything else, to becoming a normal teenager again. She will celebrate her 17th birthday in October and is hoping to have the Sweet 16 party that she missed out on a year earlier. She is getting regular physical therapy and starting to regain some of her strength, with eyes on a return to running as soon as possible. When she does lace up her running shoes again, the competitive Kimberly plans on picking up right where she left off as a freshman, but the results aren’t what her parents, including her head coach, are interested in.
“That doesn’t matter,” Jim said. “The truth is, let’s regain a sense of normalcy. For me, since July 28 last year, I haven’t really looked past today, every single day.”
Jim then turns and looks across the couch at his youngest daughter.
“What do we say before we go to bed every night Kimberly?”
“One more day,” she answers.