“I started prioritizing treatment over my dreams for the future”: Public testimony of a young woman diagnosed with thyroid cancer after Fukushima disaster
On January 27, 2022, a group of six young men and women from Fukushima Prefecture filed a class action lawsuit against Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), claiming that the thyroid cancer they had developed was linked to their exposure to radioactive contamination from the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. The plaintiffs, who were aged 6 to 16 at the time of the disaster, are among the growing number of young people from Fukushima Prefecture who have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer or suspected thyroid cancer. According to the legal counsel, this rate of diagnosis—293 cases as of April 2022—is many tens of times higher than would be expected; pediatric thyroid cancer is very rare. Despite this, the Japanese government and TEPCO continue to deny the possibility of a causal connection between radiation exposure from the nuclear accident and rising cancer rates, instead claiming that an excess of cases has only been detected due to large-scale screening with advanced technology. For more detail and background on the 311 Children’s Thyroid Cancer Trial, read lead attorney Ido Kenichi’s statement here.
The first oral arguments were heard on March 26, 2022, at the Tokyo District Court. The following is the public testimony of one plaintiff, a young woman in her 20s, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was in high school. She describes the sobering trajectory of her life after diagnosis, from traumatic surgery and treatment to interrupted dreams of college graduation and employment. A recording of her testimony (in Japanese) can be heard on the website of Our Planet TV here.
Translated by Elicia Cousins
“It was my middle school graduation ceremony that day. “This is it, isn’t it!” My friends and I sat around chatting and taking lots of pictures with our digital cameras. I think it was snowing a bit at that time.
When the earthquake hit, I was video chatting with another friend about the graduation ceremony. At first, we casually noted that an earthquake was happening, but then the shaking suddenly got stronger and a ballpoint pen fell onto my head from somewhere. “Oh no!” (Yabai!) I heard someone say, and the call dropped.
My house is going to get crushed, I thought. The shaking continued for what felt like a hellishly long time.
I became aware of the nuclear accident when the actual explosion happened. I heard a rumor that radiation would turn the sky pink, but because that didn’t happen, I didn’t develop a sense of crisis.
March 16 was the day that that high school entrance exam results were posted. The trains were stopped because of the earthquake, so I heard the results at my middle school instead. I walked to school, and after seeing the results, I stood outside talking to my friend for a long time before walking back home again. I had no idea that radiation levels were very high that day.
My thyroid cancer was detected through the prefectural health survey.
I still have a very clear memory of the moment I found out. That day, I was wearing new clothes and sandals. My mom drove me to the examination.
There were several doctors involved in the examination process. Did the exam take a long time? Or was it quick? Now I’m not so sure. I can’t be certain, but I think that the moment the doctor took the ultrasound scan of my neck, their face clouded a bit. The examination was extensive.
People who had been called up after me were already finished with their exams. “You’re the only one who took longer,” my mom said. “Maybe you have cancer,” she joked as we left the venue. In that moment, I never suspected that I’d need a more detailed follow-up examination.
There were a lot of people at the hospital where I got my next examination. This time, I started to feel a bit uneasy. I got a blood test and another ultrasound. Something was wrong after all. Even I had realized that much. It was then decided that I’d need to do a fine needle aspiration cytology test. At that point, I was pretty sure that I had thyroid cancer.
In my case, the cluster of cells that needed to be sampled had hardened, so it was difficult to extract the sample. The terror of having a long needle going into my neck only grew, as did the feeling of just wanting to get it all over with. It finally worked after the third try.
Ten days later, the examination results came out. The results from that cytology test. Once again, there were a lot of people at the hospital. I found out that I had thyroid cancer.
But the doctor didn’t actually say that I had thyroid cancer, and instead told me in a roundabout way by explaining that I’d need surgery. I’ll never forget the shock of being told, “If you don’t get surgery, you’ll only live until age 23.”
The night before the surgery, I couldn’t sleep at all. I was filled with worry, and even though I felt like crying, there were no tears. But I thought, if this is what it will take to heal… so I went ahead with the surgery.
Things were way worse after the surgery.
When I came to, I felt fatigued and feverish. The anesthesia didn’t work well for me, I often threw up in the middle of the night, and I felt sick and nauseous. To this day, I can clearly remember how excruciating that experience was. I sometimes have nightmares about the surgery, hospitalization, and treatment.
After the surgery, my voice was gone, and I could hardly speak for three months.
I ended up enrolling at a university in a neighboring prefecture rather than my top choice school in Tokyo, partly because my family was worried about my illness. But I couldn’t even go to that school for very long, because my thyroid cancer came back.
The recurrence was detected at the very first health checkup I had after enrolling in college, and I had no choice but to quit. I hadn’t healed after all. And the cancer has even metastasized to my lungs. The feelings were unbearable. I didn’t heal. I didn’t know where to channel my emotions. This time, I really might not be able to live much longer, I thought.
Since I now knew how difficult surgery was, I became depressed thinking about having to go through it all over again. The second surgery ended up taking longer than expected, and because the cancer had metastasized to my lymph nodes quite a bit, the cut on my neck got bigger.
Once again, the anesthesia didn’t sit well with me and I threw up in the middle of the night. Having to suction phlegm out of my chest was particularly painful. After the second surgery I lost all sensation around my clavicle, and it still feels strange whenever I touch that area.
I’ve had people say some shockingly heartless things about my surgical scars. Like when someone asked if they were the result of a suicide attempt. People have said things that never would have crossed my mind. These surgical scars will never go away. Now I always pick clothing that will cover them up.
After the surgery, I had to get isotope treatment for the lesions caused by the lung metastasis. This is a treatment where you take concentrated radioactive iodine pills in order to expose the cancer cells to radiation.
I did outpatient treatment for the first and second round. For this treatment, since you’re ingesting radioactive iodine, you end up becoming an exposure risk to the people around you. After I got my dosage at the hospital I’d go home and isolate myself, but I was worried about exposing my family to radiation. I drank the iodine twice, but the cancer didn’t go away.
For the third round I needed to take a larger amount of iodine, so I had to stay at the hospital. My room at the hospital was at the end of a long, white hallway and through several doors. There were yellow and red signs pasted everywhere, warning of radiation. It was a hazardous area despite being inside a hospital. As for the room itself, you can only bring in previously approved items. That’s because anything you bring in becomes contaminated.
Nurses don’t come into that hospital room. The doctor just comes in once a day to do an examination. I felt bad that the doctor had to come in knowing that they’d be exposed to radiation. I didn’t want anyone to have to sacrifice themselves because of me.
Two or three doctors came into my room with the medicine. The medicine was in a cylindrical plastic case.
Drinking the medicine was a race with time. One doctor took the white capsule out with tweezers, placed it in a paper cup, and handed it to me.
They then immediately left the room, closing the lead door behind them and then instructing me through the speakerphone to drink the medicine. I quickly gulped down the medicine with some water.
After I swallowed, they checked the inside of my mouth through the door. They then held a radiation-monitoring device over my stomach to confirm that the capsule got there, and then I was instructed to lay down on the bed. The doctor then told me over the speakerphone to change the orientation of my body every 15 minutes.
As for food, I was first shown a meal on the TV screen in order to make sure that I could eat all of it without leaving anything on my plate. They didn’t want to give me any more than I could eat, so as to minimize the amount of contaminated waste.
That night, a wave of nausea suddenly came over me. I felt so sick. The feeling wouldn’t go away so I panicked and pressed the button to call the nurse, but the nurse didn’t come. I thought I’d better not throw up on the bed, so I rushed to the bathroom.
When I later told the nurse that I’d thrown up, they just prescribed some anti-nausea medicine. By then it was already past 2am, and I couldn’t sleep very well.
The next day onward, I completely lost my appetite, and I usually had them bring me just medicine and not meals. I threw up once or twice on the second day too.
Until then, I’d almost never thrown up in my life. I ended up bursting a blood vessel in my eye because of the strain of throwing up, and my eye became bright red. Through the door, the nurse checked my condition, and prescribed some eye drops.
I felt sick for the rest of the time I spent in that room. I was just waiting for the time to pass.
In that room, there was a square radiation monitoring device attached to the wall near the ceiling. It looked like an air conditioner. On the bottom right of the device was a display window that would show the radiation measurement. When I stepped closer to it, the number would shoot up, and when I stepped away the number would go down again.
I spent three days like this, and finally it became time to leave. I had to throw away everything I’d been wearing, like my pajamas, into a garbage can made of lead. I changed into the clothes I’d stored in a locker, opened the lead door, and walked with the nurse down the long hallway and through multiple doors.
After this treatment, one of the side effects I had to deal with was that I couldn’t produce saliva normally. It became difficult to swallow food with a low water content, and my sense of taste changed.
That hospitalization experience was the harshest yet. I don’t want to have to go through it again.
I went through such a painful experience, and yet the treatment didn’t work that well. It didn’t do what it was supposed to, and I ended up feeling like it was all a waste. Before, I was motivated to get treatment with the assumption that it would cure me. Now, I just think, I hope this treatment at least slows down the progression of my illness.
After becoming ill, I’ve started prioritizing cancer treatment over my dreams for the future. Because of treatment, I’ve given up on everything—college, the studies I’d been focusing on in order to pursue the career I wanted, and even going to concerts I’d been so excited for.
Of course, I didn’t actually want to give up on college. I wanted to graduate. I wanted to graduate and start working in a field I’m good at. I wanted to do the job hunt process (shukatsu) as a new graduate. I wanted to be carefree and chat with my friends, asking each other, “how was shukatsu?” I wanted to experience college life. These are all dreams that didn’t come true, and it’s hard to let them go.
The friends I went to middle and high school with have already graduated college, started working, and are leading stable new lives. I can’t help but look at them with envy. It’s hard, because I don’t want to feel this sort of resentment toward them.
It’s painful to see medical students at the hospital who are about the same age as me. I end up thinking, I should be a college student too.
Every time I go to the hospital, I think, I hope the tumor marker value hasn’t gone up. But lately, the value is higher every time, and I get crushed—what did I do wrong? Why is the number higher?
My overall health has been declining, and I struggle with sore shoulders, lower back pain, fatigue, and hands and feet that quickly go numb. I’m not sure if it’s because of the excessive amount of medicine I have to take, but I sometimes get heart palpitations or feel like I’m suffocating. The area of my neck where I got surgery also cramps very easily, and when that happens, I have to just endure the pain until it subsides.
I feel bad whenever I think about how much I’ve burdened my family and how much I’ve made them worry because of my illness. I don’t want to cause them any more pain.
I want to return to my old body. But as much as I pray for that, I will never get it back. Through this trial, I hope that thyroid cancer patients are able to get proper compensation.”