Stuyvesant student near Ground Zero on 9/11 now has cancer

Dana Nelson, a first-year student at Stuyvesant High School on Sept. 11, 2001, said there are lessons to be learned as she reflects on the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks — especially during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.

One of them is not to rush to normalcy.

Nelson, 33, now a public school teacher at the Lafayette HS Education Complex in Brooklyn was diagnosed with breast cancer last December and still takes chemotherapy pills. She also has rhinosinusitis.

“One of the reasons I got sick was the rush to get back to normal. I worry about the rush to normal during the coronavirus pandemic,” Nelson said.

She said “the air was unsafe” when students were brought back to Stuyvesant, just blocks from the pile of smoldering remains of the World Trade Center towers at Ground Zero.

There’s been a reported cluster of cancer and disease among students who attended Stuyvesant and other schools downtown near the Pile.

Nelson recalled that allergies got worse after 9/11.

Dana Nelson was a freshman at Stuyvesant High School, located mere blocks from the WTC, when the buildings were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

“They did a great job providing students’ mental health services. But because we weren’t on the Pile they weren’t thinking as much about our physical health.

“The burning smell was everywhere.”

Nelson, with assistance from the law firm Barasch McGarry, enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program and has filed medical claims with the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund.

She got checked out after noticing a lump on her breast and was surprised to be diagnosed with breast cancer at such a young age — just months after giving birth to her son, Milo.

The 2001 yearbook image of Dana Nelson.
Dana Nelson’s 2001 yearbook photo.
Neville Elder's photographs of downtown Manhattan on 9/11/01 were published worldwide. ten years later he returned to the same places where he made those memorable pictures and photographed New York City as it is today.  Picture shows the Downtown Manhattan skyline (view from Brooklyn) as it was Septenber 11th 2001.
A view of downtown Manhattan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Corbis via Getty Images

“I feel lucky I’ve gotten through all this. I still have numbness in my hand,” the teacher said.

The failure to protect environmental health after 9/11 is a cautionary tale that applies to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelson said.


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She worries about opposition to the coronavirus vaccine and mask mandates.

“I wish everyone were on the same page,” Nelson said.

Her traumatic 9/11 experience informs and inspires Nelson’s vocation as a teacher.

Dana Nelson
Dana Nelson has battled breast cancer and rhinosinusitis.
Paul Martinka

“I’m excited to teach my students this school year. All classes are in-person,” she said. “I want to keep my students as safe as possible while getting educated and having their social and emotional needs met.”

Moreover, she urges anyone who spent time at Ground Zero to apply for medical health check-ups and benefits with the WTC Health Program and Victims Compensation Fund.

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