My body gave birth to a giant thyroid nodule a few years ago.
“How long have you had this?” The doctor asked as he checked my neck at a routine check-up.
“Had WHAT? I asked, puzzled and immediately concerned.
After explaining to me what he meant and that I certainly did have an abnormally large lump on the right side of my thyroid – “here, feel that” – I did a quick memory inventory check of possible causes. And no, I had no idea how long I had it, but something surfaced as a long-held uneasiness.
“Can exposure to nuclear radiation cause this?” I asked and got his immediate attention with what I am sure was not a typical explanation.
So I went on to relate about this episode in my year as an exchange student in Germany, 1986. In the hitherto unknown town of Chernobyl, in the Soviet Union, a nuclear reactor had a major melt-down. Panic ensued because the jet stream carried radiation-laced clouds over Europe including Hamburg, where I lived.
Children were excused from school attendance. Farmers waited to learn what level of radiation would be acceptable in their crops and in milk before they could take it to market, as food rotted in warehouses. Parents were told not to let their kids play in water or sand. Pregnant women worried. Jokes abounded, “Looking good today, positively RADIANT.”
100 times more radiation escaped at Chernobyl than by the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the most plentiful elements released was radioactive iodine, with a half-life of 8 days. The body cannot distinguish between it and normal iodine and it is quickly absorbed by the thyroid to produce hormones necessary for metabolism. 1/3 of children in the immediate Chernobyl area soon developed thyroid cancer, some of it very aggressive. Tumor specialists predicted a dramatic rise in cancers 20 to 30 years after the incident.
I don’t know if my nodule is in any way related, but it possibly is. Thankfully, thyroid cancer is usually very curable and slow-growing. That’s why I (sort of) call it my “cancer of choice.” Every year I get an ultrasound to see if it has grown and so far, so good.