Advertisement

THE SUNDAY PROFILE : From the Pain, a Passion : James and Nancy Chuda lost their little girl to a rare cancer. Now they are on a mission to protect other children.

TIMES HEALTH WRITER

When a child dies, the mourners talk about how a short life is purposeful--how even the very young can complete a mission on Earth.

This belief, embraced during the memorial service for their little girl on April 24, 1991, steers the lives of James and Nancy Chuda.

The remembrance was held in the stunning, sunlight-bathed house that Jim, a well-known environmental architect, built four years ago for his family in Laurel Canyon. Colette, who died of cancer at 5, had lived there only a short while, playing among the rose bushes and dreaming the dreams of a little girl.

That spring day, lying “like a princess,” Nancy says, in her bedroom and surrounded by roses and her loved ones, the child was gone but the mission had begun. With the Chudas’ approval, a friend passed out elegant handwritten notes announcing the Colette Chuda Environmental Fund.

Advertisement

The Chudas’ close friend and neighbor, Marcy Hamilton, had come running down the hill the morning after Colette died, Nancy recalls. “She said, ‘Nancy, Colette’s favorite color was green. She loved the park. She loved nature. Why don’t you start an environmental fund?’ Of course, I was just trying to survive the tragedy, and I said, ‘Oh, Marcy, it’s a good idea.’ But I was in a fog.”

More than three years later, the Chudas’ hearts are still leaden but their minds have cleared. And their resolve has grown exponentially. The couple suspect that Colette’s cancer, a rare form called Wilms’ tumor, was caused by some unknown toxic exposure, either in the womb or during infancy. Unlike other cancers, Wilms’ tumor has no known genetic cause.

The tragedy turned their long-held environmentalism from a concern to a passion, from a devotion to a calling. And, with the help of other parents--some of them entertainment business megastars--the Chudas are earning the respect of environmental activists and lawmakers.

Last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a powerful nonprofit environmental group, released a report saying that the typical American child is not only exposed to many chemicals known to cause cancer but also may be more vulnerable to those exposures than adults. Yet government standards regulating carcinogens take into account neither multiple exposures nor children’s rapid growth and development, which make them more vulnerable to toxins.

Advertisement

The report, “Handle With Care: Children and Environmental Carcinogens,” was funded by the Colette Chuda Environmental Fund and is dedicated to her memory.

“Children have to be considered separately in environmental regulations, with their own standards for tolerance,” Nancy says. “Until we can define and declare those differences, and begin to regard children as special, we won’t see change. That is the driving force behind this report and behind us.”

In the often arcane and dry technical world of environmental science, the Chudas humanize bland data, says Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.

“We have got to begin to personalize--as the Chudas are able to do--issues that have been reduced to statistics by lawmakers,” Feldman says. “I can’t think of two better people to do this.

“Every time they have to give their perspective--to say what moved them--they have to present the tragic facts and relive, to some extent, (their) pain. Yet Jim and Nancy are willing to put themselves through that to prevent future harm for others.”

*

It’s a brisk October morning, two days after the release of the NRDC report. Jim and Nancy, along with her cousin, public relations professional Betty Ann Gaynor, frantically work the phones, trying to squeeze into the lineup of a Larry King show about the report.

Their prospects look dim, and Gaynor cautions against high hopes. But Nancy, a former broadcaster who worked for KABC in the early ‘80s, has contacts. And within a few hours Jim and Nancy are in a Sunset Boulevard studio telling King, via satellite, about Colette and the environmental fund.

Advertisement

“Why am I surprised?” asks Gaynor, who has flown in from Florida to help publicize the report. “Nancy and Jim are guided by this inner sense of what is right and good, and what can come to pass. They are also articulate and magnetic. They can communicate that, ‘This is where our priorities need to be.’ ”

It seems as if Nancy, a Los Angeles native, was born to attract positive attention. At 47, she is a slender beauty often praised for her optimism and generosity. Her mother, Lenore Breslauer, co-founded the anti-war citizens’ group Another Mother for Peace. Her father, Broadway producer David Gould, died when Nancy was 12. Her stepfather, entertainment business manager Gerald Breslauer, introduced Nancy to her best friend and soul mate in environmental causes, Olivia Newton-John.

Nancy discovered a love of Mother Earth early. While working as a model in her late teens, she wrote a cookbook containing low-fat recipes and went on a book tour to warn against the use of pesticides and additives. Her slogan: “A slim solution for fat pollution.”

“It was the beginning of my consciousness about food, pollution and pesticides,” she says. “I used to come home and say to my family at dinner, ‘Don’t eat that. It has pesticides.’ I used to drive my family insane. But I think I had a sense of what was to come.”

Her experience in front of the camera on the book tour led Nancy to a broadcast journalism career, and she eventually landed the film critic job at KABC, from 1979 to 1982. She left to write a movie script with Newton-John, but marriage and motherhood became her priorities. Nancy and Jim met L.A-style when she answered his used-car-for-sale ad, and they married in 1984. Colette and Newton-John’s daughter, Chloe, were born just a few weeks apart in 1986.

The mothers and their daughters formed the nucleus of a group that would meet each Wednesday in the William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom in Beverly Hills. Nancy led nature walks through the park, where a sycamore was later planted in Colette’s memory, and promoted her latest environmental cause to the other moms.

Jim, too, became a devoted environmentalist early in his career. After growing up in Nebraska and graduating from USC, he joined the Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International and became its architect, designing structures across the country, as well as the Ikeda World Peace Park on Oahu.

In the early ‘70s, his daughter from his first marriage was born with severe mental and physical disabilities. Then in 1979 Jim was found to have melanoma, a potentially deadly skin cancer. Doctors removed a lesion on his back and operated again when the cancer metastasized to his groin. Eschewing their advice to undergo chemotherapy, he put his faith in Buddhism and nature and adopted a diet high in various nutrients and enzymes.

Advertisement

“I came to the conclusion that I could either put good things into my life to help me or poison,” says Jim, 52. The cancer has not recurred.

By the late 1980s, he had begun plans to build an environmentally friendly house for Newton-John and her family in Malibu. Nancy, meanwhile, stepped up her involvement as an activist, backing the 1990 Big Green Initiative (Prop. 65), an ill-fated package of sweeping environmental laws. Working as a co-producer with Jeff Margolis, she lined up Newton-John, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, Cher and Meryl Streep to perform in an ABC-TV special called “An Evening With Friends of the Environment.” Although it never mentioned the initiative, the show’s intent was clear to Californians.

Nancy put the event together from Colette’s bedside at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, making hundreds of phone calls to agents and network executives. The 4-year-old with dimples and a veil of brunette curls had become ill four months earlier.

Suddenly, saving the environment and saving Colette seemed tragically, inextricably linked.

“Nancy just redoubled her efforts (on Prop. 65) after Colette got sick,” recalls Lawrie Mott, co-author of the recent NRDC report. “We were all surprised beyond belief that she didn’t want to drop out and crawl into a totally separate world. But she made it clear that she wanted to continue, and I think it helped her through her darker moments. It was incredible. People used to go have meetings with Nancy on Big Green in the hospital corridor.”

*

They say a dying child knows what is happening and accepts it long before adults do.

Despite a poor prognosis--the cancer that began in Colette’s kidney had already metastasized to her lungs when it was discovered--the Chudas supported their child through a heartbreaking odyssey of radiation, surgery and chemotherapy.

“They were so incredible during Colette’s illness,” Newton-John says. “They never gave up.”

Colette couldn’t die, they kept telling themselves, for another reason: Jim’s son from his first marriage had been killed in a surfing accident in Hawaii a year earlier. Andy was 18.

“I hadn’t gotten over that, " Jim says. “I was still in a daze. I thought, ‘This time, we can change things.’ ”

But, he adds, “I think Colette knew. She used to ask me what happens after you die.”

And, 10 days before she died, with a last-ditch course of chemotherapy awaiting her, she crawled into bed with Nancy one night and asked: “Mommy, why did this happen to me?”

“I didn’t have any words for her then, and I still don’t,” says Nancy, crying softly.

“We asked, all along, about the cause,” Jim says. “There were no answers. People would say, ‘This is rare. This is non-genetic.’ ”

Still, the couple underwent tests to see if something in their own health profiles might have affected Colette. The tests yielded no clues.

And because they live in a house devoid of potentially toxic building materials and eat organic foods, the Chudas can’t imagine what toxin could have entered their child’s body to cause the disease.

“We’ll never know what caused it,” Nancy concedes. “But we talked to one doctor who treated Colette about the possibility of environmental causes. She sat and listened to my concerns. She never negated it. She said, ‘I don’t doubt that there is an environmental factor in these cancers.’ ”

*

They say nothing is harder to endure than the death of a child.

“People say to us: ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ Well, the only way we know (to cope) is by doing this,” says Nancy, pointing to the downstairs office in their pristine home.

On one wall is a collage of pictures from a Bette Midler concert fund-raiser. Another holds a huge U.S. map with pins marking the spots where the Chudas’ campaign is taking root. On a far wall is a blown-up picture of Colette, the sun glinting through her curls, a sweet smile of delight on her face as she cuddles a puppy.

On long days of networking on the telephone or writing grant proposals, the photograph reminds the Chudas why they have taken on such a daunting task. They remember the resignation in Colette’s voice near the end of her fight, when three “sweating, shaking nurses tried to hook up the IV” for a last round of chemotherapy, Nancy says. “Finally, Colette said: ‘Just do it and get it over with.’ That was her last moment of consciousness.” She died five days later.

The Chudas’ friends remember the mission too.

It was Newton-John who held Nancy as she sobbed in a hospital after Colette’s stomachache turned out to be cancer. And when the singer’s environmental book for children, “A Pig Tale” (Simon & Schuster, 1993), came out, she hit the talk-show circuit, drumming up support for the fund.

Another mothers’ group member, Bette Midler, donated 500 seats at her 1993 Universal Amphitheater concert to the fund, raising $86,000.

“We were all in this mothers’ group, and (Colette’s illness) touched us all so much,” Newton-John says. “We all felt that it could have been any one of us.”

The exposure from Newton-John’s book tour also helped launch an offshoot of the Chudas’ organization: the Children’s Health and Environmental Coalition (CHEC), which is designed to unite grass-roots groups working on the issue.

Tessa Hill of Minneapolis met the Chudas through Newton-John and has become an integral part of CHEC.

“I have a strong commitment to Nancy and Jim. They are really smart. And they have the inspiration of their child behind them,” says Hill, whose son, Clinton, founded the Kids for Saving the Earth Club before dying of cancer at age 11. “We want so badly for it not to go in vain and for it not to happen to other families and children.”

The Chudas hope that Hill and other activists will take the NRDC report to their members, the media and lawmakers, amplifying the need for specific environmental regulations to protect children. Meanwhile, the Chudas are also sponsoring a study in Krakow, Poland, that aims to track the impact of carcinogens in ambient air pollution on the developing fetus.

Other plans include a national petition drive for a Children’s Environmental Bill of Rights and infiltrating the Washington power structure. They have already made several frustrating trips to the capital in which, too often, a low-level Administration figure sidesteps their pointed questions about the lack of regulations and studies on children’s health.

But the Chudas have made an impression, says Mary Gant of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a government agency that funds research.

“What they have done is raise the interest and concern of people in Washington,” she says. “That is so important. . . . The Chudas communicate in an incredibly effective way. You immediately know their feelings are genuine and come from the heart. And you get a real sense of their commitment.”

Their commitment is simply as strong as their love for Colette, their belief that public pressure will lead to change, Nancy says, recalling a recent conversation with Newton-John’s daughter, who had been Colette’s best buddy.

“Chloe was visiting us one day recently and she said, ‘Nancy, I think I know why Colette got cancer. So we would start the Colette Chuda Environmental Fund and could save other kids from getting cancer. And I think she died so we would do it,’ ” Nancy recalls.

The late-afternoon sunlight filters through the rooms of the Laurel Canyon house and across the rose bushes where the Chudas scattered some of Colette’s ashes.

“That is our philosophy,” Nancy continues. “Colette did have a mission. When she took that needle in her arm, it was as if to say, ‘I’m going. I’m getting out of here. But you’ve got some work ahead of you, Mom and Dad. And you had better do it.’ This is a mission of love. It’s something we have to do to honor her.”

Nancy and James Chuda

Ages: Nancy, 47; Jim, 52.

Natives?: Nancy was born in Los Angeles; Jim grew up in Nebraska. They live in Laurel Canyon.

Passions: The Colette Chuda Environmental Fund and its offshoot, the Children’s Health and Environmental Coalition.

Nancy on their mission: “We have tapped into something where there is a void. It’s mind-boggling when you realize that there is no testing done in children as a special focus of environmental research. We have forgotten the children.”

Jim on their mission: “We have to look at prevention (of toxic exposures). You can’t just say, ‘The government is going to protect me. I don’t have to worry about what I eat. I don’t have to worry about what is out there.’ Because, eventually, you will be affected by it.”

Jim on a guiding philosophy: “How you can judge the future of a country when you see an old man planting a tree that he’ll never experience the shade under.”

Nancy on a guiding vision: “Marching on Washington with children in strollers, backpacks or in little red wagons to bring attention to the health needs of children first.”


Advertisement