Like most support groups, this one starts with a collection of people who have nothing in common but misfortune.

October 1992. Eight women are sitting in a circle. One of them is Joni Dykstra, who has shown up because she needs to talk, even if it's with people she has never met before.But - what a coincidence - as Dykstra looks around at the faces she sees one that she recognizes. Afterward she says "Aren't you Robin Coleman?"

Sure enough, it's Robin Coleman Carbaugh, Box Elder High, Class of '72. Dykstra hasn't seen her since graduation when they both had long brown hair parted in the middle.

Like Dykstra, Carbaugh has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. And she also has some news. When she had her surgery in August, the operating room nurse was Kathleen Hume, who of course also graduated in '72. And Hume too has had breast cancer. But that isn't all. Susanne Holland Spicker had it. And their friend, Cindy, too.

Five women out of a graduating class of 207, she thought. One woman in 40.

Dykstra has read the statistics: for women between 30 and 40 years old, the incidence of breast cancer is one in 222. Some sources even put the odds at one in 1,200.

Dykstra goes home and writes a letter to the head of surgery at the University of Utah Medical Center. She wonders if someone ought to study her classmates from Brigham City. She wonders if there might be an "environmental factor" involved. Maybe there are other women in her graduating class, or classes just before and after hers, who have also had breast cancer. Maybe there are women who have it but don't know yet.

"I would like to think that if there is a high risk group there that I could do something to help them," Dykstra writes. "All the women in our class should know about this information and be encouraged to get mammograms, don't you think?"

The head of surgery forwards her letter to an epidemiologist at the U.'s Cancer Center. A few weeks later, Dykstra gets an answer: Most likely, says the epidemiologist, she and her high school friends are just a "random cluster." A coincidence. A bunch of bad luck.

Joni Dykstra found out she had cancer on a sunny afternoon in August 1992. She had a biopsy, then she waited, alone, for the results. She flipped through a magazine she had brought along. She knew she could count on the fall fashion issue of Vogue, with its pages of mohair and suede, to distract her.

And then suddenly the surgeon was standing in front of her with three bad words. Cancer. Mastectomy. Reconstruction. Dykstra was dizzy with the news.

But she was also thinking about the red cowboy boots on page 176.

Of course she couldn't afford them; she was a single working mother and a college student. She and her 6-year-old daughter were on a serious budget. Still, she also knew that cancer is an abyss - and maybe the red boots could keep her from falling in. A couple of weeks later, after her mastectomy, she called Vogue to track down the boots. She called Nordstrom in San Francisco and ordered a pair.

And then, in the weeks that followed, she would lie awake at night.

The red boots were in her closet. She shut her eyes and imagined that they were snug around her feet, flashy yet practical. She was riding on a horse, in a roundup, much like the one she rode when she worked at a ranch near Jackson Hole when she was in her 20s. This time, though, she was herding malignancies. You know, she tells you later, git along little cancer cells.

Cancer begins with a small glitch. A typographical error of genetic coding that creates a piece of chemical misinformation that may eventually lead to cellular mayhem.

Nobody knows how many mutations it takes to cause breast cancer. Or how long it takes, from the first mutation to the eventual tumor. You can't see the glitches happening, or know on what day one of them will be one too many. We know that certain carcinogens can cause mutations. But we don't know how much exposure it takes. Or exactly what the effect is of the accumulations of many different kinds of carcinogens. Or why in women exposed to the same carcinogens, some get cancer and some don't.

A small number of women - maybe 7 percent - are born with a defective gene that predisposes them to the disease. But most women who get breast cancer don't have the gene. And breast cancer itself, even in those women who have inherited the "breast cancer gene," is not something a woman is born with.

Dykstra has a picture of herself on her bike. She is 11 years old, a skinny auburn-haired little girl pedaling through the streets of Brigham City.

The Dykstras moved to Brigham in 1958, when Joni was 4. It was an idyllic place for a child to grow up: shaded streets in a town surrounded by orchards and fields of sugar beets and alfalfa.

Of course there were mosquitoes, courtesy of Willard Bay. But Box Elder County had a vigilant mosquito-abatement program, which during the '50s and early '60s sent DDT trucks on periodic, slow passes through town.

Like other children in towns across America, the kids in Brigham loved those DDT trucks. They shot out a cold, white mist; a kid could ride her bike behind the truck for blocks, enveloped in a sweet cloud of solitude.

Dykstra started thinking about those bike rides after her reunion with Robin Coleman Carbaugh at the breast cancer support group in 1992. She had read about the way DDT, metabolized as something called DDE, could hang around in breast tissue for decades. She had read about studies that linked DDT to breast cancer, and about studies that found no link at all.

Eventually Dykstra will learn that her friend Cindy didn't have cancer after all. Her tumors were benign. But there will be reports of other classmates with breast cancer, some of which will be true and some not, and all of which will keep adding to a feeling of disquietude.

The women will begin to wonder about the beef they ate when they were children. They'll wonder about pesticides and herbicides and all the chemicals in their lives.They will wonder about everything that had once seemed familiar and benign: fruit trees and fields and water and air.

Breast cancer happens one mutation at a time. But when? And how? You can try to look through a woman's life, to walk back through her childhood looking for clues, but you'll only come away with more questions.

Like veterans of any war, cancer survivors have their own lingo. "Two years out," they'll say about a person who has lived two years past her diagnosis.

In the summer of 1997, Joni is five years out. A mammogram in July comes back negative.

But two weeks later, at a routine check-up, surgeon Steven Mintz finds a lump. Dykstra has her second mastectomy five days later.

In early September she attends a traveling national exhibit called The Face of Breast Cancer. In the foyer of Trolley Square, she walks from photo to photo of 84 women who have died of the disease, then stands before a display of new photos - snapshots of Utah women who have also died. Annette Kramer, dead at 34. Freida Ann McCoy. Jacquie Berry. LuJene Hodges.

It is a Vietnam Wall of breast cancer: names that personalize a tragedy that has become too big to comprehend.

Every 12 minutes a woman in the United States dies of breast cancer. Every three minutes another woman is diagnosed. Women born in the United States between 1947 and 1958 - women, like Dykstra, who are now between 40 and 50 years old - have almost three times the rates of breast cancer that their great-grandmothers did when they were the same age.

Since 1940, the incidence of breast cancer - that is, the number of women with the disease for every 100,000 women in the United States - has risen between 1 and 2 percent each year and is only now leveling off.

Whether that increase is attributable to better detection is a matter of considerable debate. But the most widely accepted estimate, says biologist Sandra Steingraber, is that no more than 40 percent of the increase is due to earlier detection.

Steingraber has written a book called "Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment." She is a scientist, a poet and a former cancer patient, so the book she has written is full of facts and lyricism and an unmistakable thesis: the chemicals in our environment are killing us.

Among her many stories are those of two groups of women, one on Long Island, the other on Cape Cod. Both groups became activists after they noticed that so many of their neighbors had developed breast cancer. The Long Island group eventually persuaded Congress to direct the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Environmental Health Studies to launch a multimillion dollar study that will try to determine whether there is a link between breast cancer and past pesticide use, aircraft emissions and other contaminants.

A few weeks after the Face of Breast Cancer exhibit, Steingraber visits Salt Lake City. Dykstra is sitting in the audience when Steingraber reads from her book.

Right on! thinks Dykstra. But, even though she worries about a link between her world and her disease, Dykstra is not convinced that anything can be done to change that proliferation of chemicals.

Like most women with breast cancer, of course, she has a very complicated relationship with chemicals. Every time she talks about her disease, she uses the word "lucky." This new chemo is strong stuff; she's lucky the anti-nausea medicine works so well. To be educated, living in the richest country in the world and possessing family and friends and good health insurance - what better situation for a person with breast cancer?

Here's Joni Dykstra's way of being an activist: She wants to make sure other women do their self-exams and have annual checkups. She wants them to be "lucky," too.

Sept. 19, 1997. The student body president stands under an arch made of purple and white balloons in a ballroom at Snowbird. He greets his fellow Box Elder Bees, Class of '72. He is still handsome, 25 years after graduation. Sitting in the reunion audience, Kathy Hume and Susanne Holland Spicker are still pretty. Light reflects off Kathy's long yellow hair.

The reunion chairman talks about their small town, "the special, quiet, naive place we were raised." Their principal, now retired, speaks next. He recalls the big event of 1972: At the prom, some of the boys placed a dead rat among the decorations. When the girls saw it, they screamed.

The program continues. Classmates recall pizzaburgers in the school cafeteria, shakes and fries at the Peach City diner. Everyone is laughing. At a table near the back, one woman raises her voice to comment to her friends, "I'm surprised Joni Dykstra isn't here."

Joni and Kathy Hume had planned on coming together to the reunion. But the day of the reunion turns out to be Joni's first chemotherapy treatment for her second bout of breast cancer. She stays home from the reunion, knowing she'll be nauseated, waiting to see how bad it will be.

Three weeks later, in early October, her brother John and several friends come to the oncology clinic to be with her for her second treatment. The entrance to the hospital is framed by trees. The trees are laden with pink bows.

It almost looks like a celebration. "Someone had a girl," you might think, but then, seeing names on the ribbons - Carol and Dot and June - you realize this is Breast Cancer Awareness Month; each bow represents a Utah woman.

And suddenly you will be off balance, dizzily trying to make sense of the conflicting images: A healthy, smooth-skinned baby girl going out this door, eager for life. A healthy-looking young woman coming in, eager to be scarred and burned, eager for anything to kill her tumors.

And at the same time, these images: The woman you know who is waiting for the drugs to begin dripping into her arm. The women you don't know, hundreds of women, thousands of women attached to chemo drips, trying to live.

In the chemotherapy room Dykstra sits in a brown recliner, in a long row of brown recliners occupied by bald people of various ages, being treated for various cancers. It has been five years since she was here last - so long that her favorite chemo nurse has given birth to two children, so long that, statistically, Dykstra should have had a good chance of not ending up here.

Everyone has friends or family with them for support. Dykstra's little group, egged on by Joni herself, is the most festive. She jokes. She plays. She pulls off her scarf to startle her friends with the patches of scalp, amid patches of hair.

She is being a trooper about cancer. The oldest child in the family can't act like a big baby, she says.

Still, this recurrence of a disease she thought she had herded and lassoed is taking its toll. After her first mastectomy she hardly cried at all, and if she did shed a few tears, she did it alone. This time, though, she doesn't try so hard.

She cries now sometimes in front of her family: once when she was in the kitchen with her mom, making popcorn; again, when she went to her father's house for dinner. When her sister came to visit, they cried in each other's arms. She cried in front of John, too. John, the kid who used to perch on the back of her bike while she, the bigger and stronger one, was the one who pedaled and steered.

This time around, John has been taking care of her. He stays with her on the weekends after she has chemo. He cooks spaghetti. He chauffers Dykstra's daughter, Alex, to her dentist appointment.

Alexandra is a good kid, a cheerful sixth-grader who shuttles good naturedly between her mother's house and her father's a few blocks away. The first time her mom had cancer, Alex was 6. Now she is 11 and trying to understand everything. When she meets the reporters who are writing about her mother, she asks, "Do you both have the same kind of cancer as my mom?" and looks confused when they say they don't have cancer at all.

"She thinks she's going to get breast cancer when she grows up," Dykstra explains.

Dykstra was 32 when Alex was born. As soon as she became a mother, she knew she wouldn't be skiing the Baldy Chutes anymore. Ice climbing again in the Himalayas was out. She would need to take fewer risks.

At dinner with friends, Joni talks about how she sometimes feels exhausted by everything. Last weekend I had a meltdown, she says. What's a meltdown, Alex asks. You know, boo-hoo, says Dystrka. Alex slides under the table. When she comes back up the adults steer the conversation away from cancer.

The next night Alex has her mother drive her to the emergency room because, she explains, her heart hurts. An EKG shows she looks as healthy on the inside as on the outside. Her heart still hurts. She needs to go stay with her dad for awhile, she and her mom agree.

They agree on this too: Alex will be fine. Her mom will be fine. But Alex is only 11, and it might make her feel safer to stay with a parent who isn't losing chunks of hair.

In November, Dykstra gets a call from Kathleen Hume.

"I wanted to tell you before you heard it from anyone else," Hume says. Hume's cancer has returned. There are polyps surrounding her lungs. Even while she was sitting there at the 25th reunion, looking healthy and feeling light-hearted, cancer was growing.

Now it's Joni's heart that hurts: for her friend, found again, for herself and the others from the Class of 72. "I'm dreading telling Robin," Joni says. Kathy was the first to find her cancer, six years ago; a pioneer. When Kathy passed the five-year mark, cancer free, it was somehow Joni's victory, too.

A few weeks later, Dykstra goes to another reunion - not high school this time but her breast cancer support group. They have gathered at a Greek restaurant in Murray to celebrate their fifth anniversary. Dykstra is wearing a jaunty black hat her sister bought in San Francisco.

The women admire the new hat. Of course she wears a wig to her marketing job at Lakeview Hospital, she tells them. She gives them an update about her cancer: just one more round of chemo to go.

Where's Robin, the women ask, and are relieved to learn that it is just the flu that has kept her away tonight.

Ruth talks about her own second cancer - caused, apparently, by the radiation for her breast cancer. Marsha talks about her daughter, who, like Alex, thinks she'll grow up to get cancer. This is what Marsha says by way of reassuring her child: If you do, they have better treatment all the time.

The women talk about home improvement projects, trips, children, chemo. Cancer is just one more piece of information. A glitch they have learned to live with.

"Is everything OK?" the waitress wants to know. Of course she is only talking about the possible need for more beverages.

Scientists still can't pinpoint what causes breast cancer, and there is still no cure. Pick up a brochure from the American Cancer Society and you'll read this: "The best protection against breast cancer is to detect it at its earliest stage and to treat it promptly." Talk to breast cancer surgeon Steven Mintz and he'll tell you that more and more of his patients are young women, some in their 20s.

Talk to Joni Dykstra and you'll find that another friend from Box Elder High was recently diagnosed.

Next year more than 800 Utah women will get breast cancer: women who will then sit in circles trying to be hopeful; women who may later gather at a reunion waiting to see what comes next.