“311 Thyroid Cancer Family Association” is a group that was organized by patients—and their families—who have been diagnosed with childhood thyroid cancer during the thyroid examination after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011.
Purposes of this association are as follows:
l Encouraging communication between families of thyroid cancer patients who tend to be socially isolated.
l Facilitating information exchange in order to enhance the quality of life and treatment of the patients.
l Approaching authorities and other related organizations, such as Fukushima Prefecture, Fukushima Medical University, and Fukushima Pediatric Association, with requests and statements.
Regarding thyroid cancer in Fukushima children: our perspective
In Fukushima Prefecture, the thyroid ultrasound examination (TUE) has been conducted in 360,000 children aged 18 or younger at the time of the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident. Launched in October 2011, TUE has so far diagnosed 184 children with thyroid cancer or suspicion of thyroid cancer as of May 2017, and nearly 150 have already undergone surgeries to remove part or whole of the thyroid gland. (Some of them are adults by now, having turned 20 by the time of the diagnosis, but we refer to them as “children” here for our purposes).
Most of them are in their late 10s to early 20s. An unexpected diagnosis of thyroid cancer abruptly thrusted them into a situation to have to face “cancer” at the critical moment in life when most young people begin to take a big step towards their dreams and hopes.
Thyroid surgery leaves a visible scar in the front of the neck. Some patients require a lifetime thyroid hormone supplementation, and some patients even need additional treatments due to recurrence or metastasis. Even years after surgery, worries of recurrence or metastasis never disappear.
Diagnosis of “cancer” in one’s medical record also leaves an invisible scar in life: worries in the future are too numerous to mention—about going to college, getting married, having children, getting a job, and qualifying for life insurance, to name a few.
Their families are similarly scarred. In particular, mothers continue to remorse for not evacuating their children after the Fukushima nuclear accident, consequently exposing them to radiation, albeit inadvertently. More than anything, one can only imagine how the family must feel when they send off their precious child with thyroid cancer to an operating room.
Although more and more evidence is emerging in recent years suggesting health effects of low-dose radiation exposure, the Japanese government has not made much effort to incorporate such findings. It is premature to elucidate causality between radiation exposure due to the Fukushima nuclear accident and childhood thyroid cancer, and the task is not easy due to the lack of individual thyroid exposure doses. Moreover, surgeries on these children have revealed that most cases had extracapsular (extrathyroidal) extension and metastases to the regional lymph nodes, and in some cancer cells were even near or invading the adjacent organs such as esophagus and recurrent laryngeal nerve: These are considered “high risk” cases requiring active treatments.
Even under the circumstance, some experts cast a doubt on the necessity of the thyroid examination itself, let alone surgery, insisting that “These thyroid cancer cases are unlikely to be due to radiation effects,” “These cases are due to overdiagnosis,” and “These are just latent cancers.” One can’t help but be seriously skeptical of inconsistent opinions by these experts contradicting clinical findings.
At any rate, there is no denying the fact of the solemn existence of 184 children within Fukushima Prefecture who have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer or suspicion of thyroid cancer. Every one of these children and their families suffers and struggles in dealing with “cancer.” Beyond these 184 cases, suffering and struggle manifest manifold. No matter how low the malignant potential, how well the prognosis, or how high the survival rate, to them, their “thyroid cancer” is undeniably the very “cancer” they are burdened with.
March 2017 marked the passage of six years since the abominable Fukushima nuclear accident. We are entering the important time period when further, more detailed investigations are warranted on health effects of radiation exposure. Yet the authorities do not at all seem to be tackling squarely the issue of health consequences, with some experts pushing for the smaller-scale thyroid examination.
Now is the time to eliminate any premature conclusion, to face the health consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident on the basis of the precautionary principle, and to listen for the silent voices of our children diagnosed with thyroid cancer. This, we believe, will result in true understanding and support of the children and their families who continue to suffer.