Organic Consumers Association

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Pawning the Chernobyl Necklace

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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 24 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 36 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 36 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."

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