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What It's Like Living in Our Nuclear Sacrifice Zone: One Woman's Story About Radiation Exposure in the US

After being diagnosed with cancer at 24, Valerie Brown begins to learn about why she may have gotten sick and about the those who also live downwind of nuclear test facilities.

As the world gapes mesmerized at the nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan, those not at risk of exposure to the radiation bless their good luck and wonder what it must feel like to be the unlucky ones – the ones who can’t escape that invisible blanket of fear.

Let me tell you what it feels like.

On a spring day in 1975, the first words I heard as I rose through the fog of anesthetic were “it was malignant.” I was twenty-four years old. A couple of months earlier during a routine physical my doctor had found a mass on my thyroid gland. X-rays and ultrasound had failed to clarify whether the mass was a fluid-filled cyst or a solid tumor. The only choice was surgery. The tissue analysis during the operation confirmed a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. The surgeon removed one lobe and the isthmus of the barbell-shaped gland at the base of my neck. I was informed that I’d take thyroid hormone for the rest of my life because if my own remnant gland were to start functioning again, it might grow itself another cancer. And so I have taken the little pill every morning for thirty-six years. It took a long time for the screaming red scar around my neck – the kind that was later dubbed the “Chernobyl necklace” – to fade.

I was very lucky. I can say that now, after so many years without a recurrence. But it has been thirty-six years of ever-present fear and not a few physical problems, along with an increasing sense of outrage, as the likely cause of my trauma has gradually been revealed to me.

At the time, “Why me?” was uppermost on my mind.

“We don’t know what causes it,” my doctor told me in a casual tone. “But a lot of young women get thyroid cancer.”

Although I tried to put it behind me, I developed a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I became terrified of my body. Every blemish triggered anxiety about new tumors. Every routine screening was a nightmare. I endured a string of significant but non-fatal health problems involving several more surgeries and biopsies. One time I asked a doctor whether having had cancer once meant I’d paid my dues. He laughed, saying the opposite was true: One cancer increases the odds of getting another cancer, or of the original cancer spreading to other organs. Paying your dues early doesn’t get you a free pass later.

I can’t say I handled the experience well. As a young baby boomer I was already immersed in the nihilism triggered by the long shadow of the Cold War and the white-hot rage of the Vietnam War – whoopee, we’re all gonna die! And yet at the same time, because I was so young, I didn’t know anybody else who was even sick, let alone a cancer victim. Back then there were no cancer support groups, no proud survivors wearing colorful scarves during their chemotherapy phases. No doctor suggested to me that I might find a little counseling helpful.

As I wandered through my twenties and early thirties, I kept an ear cocked for any information I might come across about what causes thyroid cancer. In 1986 – the Chernobyl year – I learned that the link between exposure to ionizing radiation and thyroid cancer was far and away the strongest of all the disease’s possible causes. So I began pondering how I might have been exposed to such radiation.

That’s when things really started to get ugly. I found an embarrassment of riches. I had grown up in a kind of Nuclear Triangle. Ninety miles north of my home town of Pocatello, Idaho, the Idaho National Laboratory squats in the desert. When I was six months old, the first nuclear-generated electricity in the world was produced there. The site has the highest concentration of reactors in the world – fifty-two (most now mothballed). Although no one admits to any large airborne releases of radiation, at least 11 billion gallons of radioactive waste were injected into the Snake River aquifer between 1953 and 1984.

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