Erin Volz, former star goalkeeper for the Carroll College Saints, is one of 28 on University of Washington Associate Soccer Coach Amy Griffin’s list of former athletes diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Altogether, Griffin’s list numbers 217 athletes from several sports who have gotten cancer. Of those, 171 are soccer players, 108 of whom are former goalies.
Their common denominator? All played on artificial turf — specifically crumb rubber. Most, like Volz, played goalkeeper, protecting the net and often slamming their bodies into the turf.
Volz often replays diving for the ball and scraping her legs on the crumb rubber turf back when she played high school and club ball in the Pacific Northwest.
Carroll women’s and men’s teams play and practice on all-natural grass, so crumb rubber surfaces aren’t a concern. Volz, now 25, harkens back to her time playing high school and club ball in the Pacific Northwest — mostly on artificial turf fields.
The turf wasn’t suspect at the time, but now, increasingly more communities and parents are expressing alarm at the popular use of potentially toxic crumb rubber used on artificial turf playing fields.
“By the time I was 14, I was playing high school and club soccer year-round,” Volz said. “I did get exposed to some artificial turf in college, but I’d say most of my exposure was in high school, mostly.”
She played goalkeeper almost exclusively since age 10.
“I remember rolling around on the ground and diving,” Volz said. “That little black rubber would get in my nose and my mouth. It was everywhere.
"For me, I'd slide and get a nasty turf burn. It would open up your skin, and that turf was getting straight into my bloodstream or into my nose or eyes."
She is back home in Vancouver with family — and she is now cancer-free. Now in graduate school earning a master’s in mechanical engineering, she is the first to acknowledge she has little time for research on the subject.
“I have no knowledge of it,” Volz told The Standard. “I’m not a medical person; I’m a mechanical engineer.
“I don’t know if there’s an exact science correlation, but it’s hard to believe there’s not a correlation if that’s the cause. I just know there needs to be a lot more research and looking into crumb rubber that needs to be conducted.”
Her former coach, Dave Thorvilson, confirmed that her exposure to crumb rubber came in the Pacific Northwest before she moved to Helena for college.
“You see a lot of crumb rubber turf in heavy rainy areas,” said Thorvilson, adding that Carroll once considered installing crumb rubber turf on campus at Nelson Stadium.
“That never gained a lot of momentum,” said Thorvilson, partial to natural grass. “Our stadium field now for our school size is unbelievable. It just didn’t make sense for us.”
But it made sense for Volz to attend Carroll, where she graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s in math with an engineering emphasis.
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“She was one of our all-time best goalkeepers,” said Thorvilson, whose Saints advanced to the first round of the 2015 NAIA national tournament. “She was all-around. She embodies all we look for at Carroll — a good student and a team player.”
When Volz was diagnosed in 2012, University of Washington Associate Coach Amy Griffin contacted her, added her to her growing list of athletes with cancer, and kept in touch.
“I think Amy has been a pioneer, coaching at the collegiate level,” said Thorvilson. “Her (work) has brought a lot more awareness to it.”
As for the high number of goalies contracting cancer on Griffin’s list, Thorvilson has a theory:
“There seems to be a high occurrence — especially for females — who play closer to the ground and in closer contact to the field rubber,” he said.
As part of the Cascade Collegiate Conference, the Carroll College Saints could play about half of its league away games on crumb rubber, Thorvilson said.
Teammates Rachell Kuntz Kirk and Laura Maddock both grew up in Bismark, North Dakota, where public and private high schools shared an artificial turf field.
“So we played many, many games on turf,” said Kirk, who now lives in Kalispell. “And going into college, we both actually felt slightly more comfortable playing on that quicker surface than natural grass.”
Volz’ illness bonded the Saints even closer.
“The five of us, and our team, had been through a lot emotionally the past two years with other family-related illnesses and deaths,” said Kirk. “But nothing can prepare you for your best friend, and an All-Conference Athlete, to be diagnosed with cancer.”
Like Volz, Kirk is busy living life with hope, as young people do. But she, too, keeps an eye on possible data linking crumb rubber and cancer.
“I do know of other athletes who have been diagnosed with the same or similar cancer types as Erin, which has led to more conversations about the possible connection,” said Kirk. “I am very interested to read what else comes out during the investigations.”
Volz wants a definitive answer on a possible correlation.
"I drive by turf fields all the time, and I see kids playing on it, and there's a little part of me that gets a little uneasy," Volz added.
For now, her health is on the upswing.
There is no history of other blood cancers in Volz’s family. She was re-diagnosed in spring 2013. That summer she received a stem-cell bone marrow transplant using her own bone marrow.
“I’ve had no treatment since then,” she said. “The oncologist is pretty confident that it’s all behind me.”