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March 18, 2011

Like everyone else, I’m upset about the events in Japan over the past week.

Earthquake. Tsunami. Nuclear accident. What’s next in this losing game of Sim City? Godzilla?

Radiation scares me. It scares everyone, but the Japanese people have already been down that road. Chris and I never went to the memorials at Hiroshima and Nagasaki when we lived in Japan. One big reason was that traveling with Georgia as an infant was the stuff of nightmares, especially for everyone within earshot,  but also because I am a coward, or else because I have a too-vivid imagination, or both.

Now, I can only watch the news in horror, checking every ten minutes or so to see whether the Japanese authorities have announced the unspeakable.

There are a lot of good things to say about the Japanese authorities but transparency is not one of them. Or perhaps it is: I read, in the news, that they are evacuating around the troubled nuclear reactors.  I read, in the news, that 50, or 180, brave nuclear technicians are risking everything to try to halt what seems to me to be inevitable. Either they will succeed against terrible odds, likely at the cost of their lives, or they will not and a broad swath of that beautiful island nation will become uninhabitable, and thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children will be caught in an invisible rain of radioactive fallout. Widespread global panic is not going to help that. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they’re doing the best they can.

I’m afraid for them.

I don’t know what it is like to be caught within the radius of a nuclear accident but I do know what it is like to be irradiated.

Radiation cured my cancer, and it took a lot of radiation to do it. Radiation melted a hole in my sternum to get to the cancer lurking behind my breastbone. For years, my ribs on my left side were spongy. I could feel them give when I could bring myself to touch them. I still can’t check to see whether the hole in the bone above my heart has filled in because the lightest touch in that area is unendurable.

After three years I can wear a bra if I have to. I almost never have to, and my 90-year-old neighbor has fits about it because she believes that when I do not wear a bra, I am, in her words, “just like a loose woman.” I haven’t had the heart to tell her.

After three years, the muscles and tendons in my neck and chest and back randomly spasm.  When I flex them, they’re a strange combination of rubbery where they should be soft and squishy where they should be firm. When I go to yoga and we begin with simple head and shoulder movements, I get the hairy eyeball from the yoga instructor because my head and shoulders don’t do what she thinks I should be doing. She thinks I am a yoga slacker. I haven’t had the heart to tell her.


When people ask me about it, I say this:

I say, “Have you ever put a thin steak on a too-hot grill and seen it curl up and wrap around itself and get too tough to eat, so you give it to the dog? That’s what radiation did to the flesh on half of my torso, from the base of my skull to the bottom of my ribcage, wrapping around from my sternum to my spine. It’s a miracle I can move.” If a miracle is defined by lots and lots of physical therapy, it’s a miracle, and I say that a miracle is defined any way I want it to be defined, and it is a miracle, all of it.

Radiation burned all the skin off of my neck and chest. I still have a sheet left over of that burn bandage, the foamy stuff that you just stick on to the burned flesh and peel off when you want to take a bath. It’s good stuff. I hope I never have to use it again, but it’s a good thing to keep in the medicine cabinet, along with the bottles of opiates that I can’t even look at without becoming nauseated, that I was so glad to have to dull the pain of radiation.

Radiation cured my cancer and radiation saved my life.

When I was going through cancer treatment, my mother, because she is a good mother, was terribly upset by the treatment I was undergoing. She didn’t want me to go through any of it, and if it were my kid, I would feel the same way.

Before we found out how bad my cancer was, how aggressive, how advanced, we thought I would have the option of having a lumpectomy followed by radiation rather than a full mastectomy.

My mother begged me, “Don’t have radiation. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the scars, on  my friends who have had it. Radiation is terrible.” She cried. My mother never, ever cries. It terrified her; I think, perhaps, a result of having gone to high school in the U.S. during the Cold War.

Then, when I was going through it, I tried to hide the burns from her, but she saw one and said, “WHAT ON EARTH HAPPENED TO YOUR NECK?”

I told her and all she said was, “Oh.”

Radiation is terrifying, but it’s also become a part of our national, global, consciousness. It’s part of our lexicon.

When my daughter, hungry, tired, cranky, reaches the end of her capacity to behave and collapses in tears, I call it a meltdown and so does every other mother of a meltdown-prone child.

When someone, or a group of someones, makes a giant mistake and then has to face the consequences of that mistake, we call it fallout.

When an idea, a web site, a meme, a fad, takes hold of us and everyone does it, we call it critical mass.

Nuclear reactions are part of our lives, and nuclear catastrophe, the critical mass, the meltdown, the fallout, are part of our deepest fears, and now, we’re watching those fears play out in slow motion.

The self-righteous ninnies are climbing up onto their soap boxes to say, “I told you so.”

They don’t understand risk, and they don’t understand risk management. I don’t understand it either, so I’m not coming out here either for or against nuclear power. Is it the risk of nuclear catastrophe worse than the combined nightmare of the Exxon Valdez, the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the ongoing nightmare of oil spilling all over the ground of Nigeria for decades, the oil-fueled bloodshed in Africa and the Middle East, in Latin America? Is it worse than what the natural gas drillers are doing to the groundwater in Pennsylvania, New York, and Texas and what the coal mining companies have already done to the mountains and valleys of West Virginia? I don’t know.

Is the risk of nuclear catastrophe worse than the certainty of climate change? Certainly it’s more spectacular. And, in the case of the current legislature of the United States government, it’s more believable; at any rate, no one is saying, “Let’s discuss whether nuclear disaster actually causes radioactive fallout, whether radioactive fallout is really a health risk,” the way some of our legislators are trying to frame the issues of carbon emissions and global warming. No one is debating a cap and trade on cesium-137.

The reality of risk doesn’t affect our reaction to danger as much as how spectacular the … fallout … is.

I’m not the first person to notice this but I did notice it on my own. It was when I had cancer and I was at a birthday party for a kid in my kid’s class. The grownups were all standing around chit-chatting, as grownups do at preschool birthday parties, when someone with tears in her eyes buttonholed me to tell me how brave I was etc.

This happens sometimes and I am never a fan. My friends don’t do that to me. They tell me what a pain in the ass I am.

The person who was all in my face was someone I didn’t know very well, and she went off on how I was such an example and how she prayed for me every day and on and on and on, and I had chemo, and she had bad breath, and all I could think of was, “I might have cancer but you’re going to give yourself diabetes or heart disease eating that double serving of cake on your plate with icing made of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated cottonseed oil.” Speaking of miracles, I managed to say nothing at all but extricate myself from the conversation. But it got me thinking.

Everyone is afraid of getting cancer, and yet we don’t make the hard choices that may help to prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and lung disease.

Everyone is afraid of a nuclear catastrophe, and yet we burn fossil fuels like they’re going out of style.

We fear what we cannot control, but don’t make the changes to control the things we can.

It’s what lurks in the dark, or what glows in the dark, that scares us.

A friend forwarded me a note from a friend who is living in Sendai, Japan, a friend who survived the earthquake and the tsunami. My friend’s friend wrote a lovely piece in which he described the looking up at the stars, usually veiled by the lights of the city, now shining clearly for the people living on the northeast coast of Japan, people whose electric power was knocked out by the double whammy of earthquake and tsunami, and who are living under the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The beauty of the stars undimmed by light pollution is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve only been lucky enough to see it a few times in my life.

Perhaps we, all of us, need to turn off the lights and confront the darkness, and find out that it’s not so scary after all.

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  1. Nancy Kirk permalink


  2. I ❤ your blog. You make incredible observations.

  3. Abigail Carlton permalink

    Very insightful

  4. Cindy Thornton permalink

    And what is wrong with being a loose woman? 😉

  5. Yes, you are one of the few born after 1960 who have witnessed a black night sky with bright stars, or even a completely overcast black night sky without stars. The 60’s was when brighter lights were developed and not shaded from light glaring upward and outward. Eighty percent of Americans are now said to be living where they cannot see the Milky Way, that Divine River of light.

    I love your flowing style of writing, not unlike a river, especially the closing part about the importance of life-enhancing natural beauty, in spite of the tremendous anti-life power of the quake and tsunami. Such things tell me that life conquers death in the greater scheme of things..

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