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Here are a few FAQs about the brain-cancer cases at San Diego State University I wrote about today.

The graduate student who spent time at Nasatir Hall and died of brain cancer presumably only spent a few months or years there. Is that long enough to develop a brain tumor?

Maybe. Brain tumors can appear in a short amount of time, said Eric Holland, director of the Brain Tumor Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

In some cases, he said, tumors develop in a matter of months. Doctors know this because tumors sometimes appear in patients who didn’t show any sign of cancer when they had recent brain scans. The causes of brain cancer remain unclear, Holland said. “It’s either a bad-luck, sporadic type thing or it’s something we don’t know about.”

What’s with the cellular tower next to Nasatir Hall?

People who work at Nasatir Hall have looked suspiciously at neighboring buildings that house a garbage-compacting facility and a cellular tower. The university says the tower was installed in 2005. Years earlier, the building on which the tower sits held microwave devices that sent signals from KPBS’s radio and TV studios to their transmitters on Mt. Miguel, said KPBS spokeswoman Nancy Worlie. The stations and the microwave devices were moved to a different location in 1995.

Could radiation have caused the cancer cases?

Holland said no, at least judging from what happened to people exposed to radiation at Chernobyl. (In 1986 there was a severe release of radioactivity at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, which at the time was part of the former Soviet Union.).

How does SDSU’s suspected cancer cluster compare to the one at UC San Diego?

According to San Diego City Beat, eight women who worked in UCSD’s literature building reported cases of breast cancer between 2000 and 2006, and two died. Breast cancer is much more common than brain cancer, which could suggest that the cancer cases at SDSU are less likely to be due to a coincidence.

Judging by rough estimates, an average of about 26-40 people in the city of San Diego would be expected to develop brain cancer each year. (That’s using a rate of 2-3 per 100,000 per year.) An estimated 126 of every 100,000 women develop breast cancer each year. Census figures suggest there are somewhere around 623,448 females in the city of San Diego, and almost one in four may be under the age of 18. That means about 473,820 adult women live in the city, an average of around 565 of them would be diagnosed with breast cancer each year.

It’s important to note, however, that numbers work in mysterious ways. An average is just that, and there’s always plenty of variation.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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