By Mary Dickson
Growing up in Salt Lake City in the 1960s, I don't remember hearing
about nuclear testing. We had bomb drills in grade school that
sent us scurrying under our desks as part of the "duck and
cover" defense which supposedly would keep us safe in the
event of a real-life nuclear attack. Or we shuffled off to the
school's dark basement, toting our Clorox jugs of water, laughing
about what we'd eat and where we'd pee if we were ever really
trapped there. Such drills were eagerly anticipated exercises
that were more like unannounced recesses than serious preparation
for possible disaster. We didn't hear about cancers or strange
tumors or fall out. We drank our milk and ate our vegetables,
assuming that, as the Mormon hymn told us, all was well.
The first I heard about testing was at a Saturday matinee called
"Crack in the Earth." The movie was about scientists
who exploded a nuclear bomb underground to stop a crack in the
Earth. The explosion doubled the speed at which the crack spread,
nearly wiping out life on Earth. It made me nervous. I was only
seven, but it made perfect sense to me that if you exploded a
bomb underground, the Earth would shift. But that was just a movie.
The Earth shifted for me in the spring before my 30th birthday
when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I had no symptoms other
than the corn-sized nodule on my neck. The "Big C,"
as my uncle called it, was growing inside me for no apparent reason.
The dreaded cancer had suddenly sneaked up from behind and grabbed
me around the throat. My world lost its predictability with two
words: "It's malignant." Facing surgery and radiation
treatments, I didn't think it mattered how I got it. The only
thing that mattered was to get rid of it. Friends and family gave
me long sad looks, as though they expected the worst. Unable to
face me, my youngest sister left her cherished Madame Alexander
doll on my desk at work with a note I knew she had written in
tears. Did she think I wasn't coming back? The day before surgery,
I overheard a friend at the office whisper, "she's so brave,"
as I pounded away at the keys of my typewriter, trying not to
think about my surgery the next day. Was there something the doctors
weren't telling me?
The surgeon cut out my thyroid and the lymph nodes around it.
A few days later they gave me radioactive iodine to drink. They
euphemistically called it a "cocktail." After I swallowed
it, a nurse wheeled me back to my room in a high-backed wheelchair
made of lead to protect her from me. On the door of my room was
a sign: "Caution! Radioactive Material." Stamped on
my hospital bracelet was the same symbol. I was the radioactive
Every day, a radiologist opened the door to my room and pointed
his Geiger counter at me to see how "hot" I was. Knowing
it wasn't safe to enter the room, the nurses shoved trays of food
under my door. I did nothing but drink water to flush out the
radiation. I was isolated in that little room alone for four days
until the reading on the Geiger counter was low enough that I
could be around people again. When I left the hospital, they destroyed
my clothes and everything I had touched. The doctors showed me
my scan. I saw the hot spots in my ovaries and on my bladder.
They warned me not to get pregnant for at least a year. They cautioned
that it was best for me not to be around babies or pregnant women
for a few more days. Frightened by their warnings, my husband
took to sleeping in the back room.
Like him, some people felt it best to avoid me, whether out of
fear of the radiation or because I was a reminder of the randomness
with which misfortune strikes. If it could happen to me, it could
happen to them. When I ran into an old acquaintance and told her
why I'd been out of the office the last three months, she backed
away from me as if my bad luck might be contagious. She wasn't
the only one I made nervous. My husband scolded me, when months
after my surgery, my hand instinctively went to my neck, feeling
for more lumps. "Stop looking for more," he cried, as
if my vigilance would bring the disease back. "They said
they got it all. Stop looking for trouble!" I'll never stop
feeling for more. "Since I've had thyroid cancer, does that
mean I had my bout with cancer and I won't get any other kind?"
I naively asked my doctor, desperate for reassurance. He smiled
and said there are no guarantees of anything.
After I recovered, I went back to editing the Desert Sun,
a newspaper that monitored the Nevada Test Site and carried stories
about nuclear tests, leaks and radiation. I knew about the 126
bombs exploded since 1951 during 12 years of atmospheric testing.
I knew about the mushroom clouds of deadly particles they spewed
during the years I was growing up in a quiet, tree-lined Salt
Lake City neighborhood. I knew about the underground testing that
continued after the government banned open-air testing. I knew
that fifteen percent of those tests leaked radiation, some of
them levels comparable to Chernobyl. I interviewed a radiobiologist
who told me thyroid cancer was common among those exposed to radiation
as children. Even then, I still didn't think of my own cancer
as anything but bad luck in a random universe. Like so many of
us, I assumed radiation was something that only affected people
in southern Utah, those who had the bad luck of living directly
downwind of the blasts.
Then I met Carole Gallagher. It was 1989. She was a New York
photographer who moved to Utah to document the effects of nuclear
testing on people living downwind of the Nevada Test Site. She
interviewed and photographed hundreds of people, collecting one
horror story after another. Ordinary people recounted countless
medical problems, unspeakable suffering, and always endless stories
The first time I interviewed Gallagher for an article I was writing,
I mentioned my cancer. She latched onto the story of my disease,
and started grilling me about my life -- when I was born, where
I was raised, and if I drank milk.
"Testing," she said, "you got cancer from testing!"
"But I grew up in Salt Lake," I protested.
She shook her head. "You people are so naive. You think
it stopped at Richfield. It went everywhere."
She showed me a map of the fallout. Utah and Nevada were blotted
out and the black ink spread as far north as Minnesota and Canada.
Gallagher told me how contaminated hay, milk, wool and meat from
Utah and Nevada had been shipped all over the country. She explained
how the silent poison spread through unsuspecting neighborhoods
like mine. That was when Carole Gallagher asked to interview me.
When Gallagher's book, "America Ground Zero: The Undeclared
Nuclear War," was released nationwide, I reluctantly opened
my copy. I read two stories before bursting into tears. I saw
my face among the photographs of ranchers, teachers and scientists,
all of us victims of nuclear testing. I really was a downwinder.
I had been lucky. Doctors pronounced me fully recovered. Other
people in Gallagher's book were not so fortunate. Many have already
I waited a few days before opening the book again. I read the
list of diseases possibly related to fallout: tumors, cancers,
miscarriages, diabetes, heart disease, birth defects, severe allergies,
arthritis, nerve and muscle disorders, immune disorders like lupus
and multiple sclerosis. My older sister had lupus, a good friend
In her book, Gallagher reported the circumstantial evidence linking
nuclear fallout to those diseases. She contends that the government
knew the facts--about fallout, about contaminated milk, about
the susceptibility of children--and that they lied to the people.
People like me, my sister and my friends. Could we all have been
poisoned by the deadly winds of the Cold War? The world suddenly
seemed far more sinister. There was nowhere to hide. A friend
of mind says that she is always comforted by the sound of sirens
because "it means that me and mine are safe; the sirens scream
for someone else." When the pink clouds of fallout drifted
across the skies in all directions as I was growing up, no sirens
rang out to signal the danger. We blithely went about our lives,
assuming we were safe. We trusted our government when they assured
us we had nothing to worry about. Are any of us safe?
Reports keep coming out, revealing more of the truth. An article
in the "Bulletin of Atomic Scientists" claims that the
government warned the film manufacturer Eastman Kodak about expected
areas of heavy fallout during the 1950s, so it could protect unexposed
film. People living downwind never received the same courtesy.
A 14-year study by the National Cancer Institute shows that virtually
all Americans in the 1950s were exposed to fallout, and that as
early as 1953 our government knew that drinking milk from cows
that had eaten contaminated foliage could cause thyroid cancer.
Since Gallagher interviewed me I have had another major surgery.
This time doctors opened me up and removed my reproductive organs.
I remembered the warning not to get pregnant for at least a year
after I drank the "cocktail." I never did get pregnant.
After years of trying I gave up. Tumors in my uterus and on my
ovaries were to blame for that. What else might show up in years
to come? Every twinge, every pain fills me with dread. Can anyone
blame me for always feeling for lumps?
I have no proof that I got my cancer from breathing the air or
drinking the milk. No one can tell me for certain. All these years
later, scientists are still arguing. Meanwhile, I've started a
list of people I know who have had cancer: too many childhood
friends and neighbors to count, my grandmother, grandfather, a
cousin, and aunt, four co-workers, two former colleagues, my co-editor
at the Desert Sun, the radiobiologist I interviewed, even
Carole Gallagher. The list keeps growing. If I add to it auto
immune diseases like the lupus that took my sister's life three
months ago, the list doubles. The beautiful young mother who lives
across the alley recently came to my door in tears to tell me
she had been diagnosed with aggressive leukemia. The first thing
the doctors asked her was, "Did you grow up in Utah?"
A friend who underwent surgery recently for thyroid cancer told
me how she stared at a map of Utah as she lay on the table for
her scan. "All I could think was that the state I love had
betrayed me." Testing may have stopped, but we will forever
be living with the fallout. We have no recourse because we have
Before I got cancer, I always thought I led a charmed life, that
things pretty much went my way. I eased my dark fears by convincing
myself that really terrible things happened to other people in
other places. I would be spared. I still feel lucky. But after
being labeled "radioactive material," I realize that
I and all those I love are just as vulnerable as anyone else.
We all live...after all...downwind.
Excerpted from "Downwinders All" by Mary Dickson
from "Learning to Glow: A Nuclear Reader," edited by
John Bradley. Copyright © 2000 The Arizona Board of Regents.
Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.