She's 21, has thyroid cancer, and wants people in her prefecture in northeastern Japan to get screened for it. That statement might not seem provocative, but her prefecture is Fukushima, and of the 173 young people with confirmed or suspected cases since the 2011 nuclear meltdowns there, she's the first to speak out, reports AP. That near-silence highlights the fear Fukushima thyroid-cancer patients have about being the "nail that sticks out" and thus gets hammered. The thyroid-cancer rate in the northern Japanese prefecture is many times higher than what's generally found, particularly among children, but the Japanese government says more cases are popping up because of rigorous screening, not the radiation that spewed from the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant. To be seen as challenging that view carries consequences in this rigidly harmony-oriented society.
The young woman, who requested anonymity because of fears about harassment, suffers from the only disease that the medical community has acknowledged is clearly related to the radioactive iodine that spewed into the surrounding areas after the 1986 explosion and fire at Chernobyl, Ukraine. Though international reviews of Fukushima have predicted cancer rates won't rise as a result of the meltdowns there, some researchers believe the prefecture's high thyroid-cancer rate is related to the accident. Many Japanese have deep fears about genetic abnormalities caused by radiation, and a support group for thyroid cancer patients was set up earlier this year. The young woman says her cancer was caught early, and she wants to help others. "There aren't many people like me who will openly speak out," she says. "I want everyone, all the children, to go to the hospital and get screened." (Read more Fukushima Dai-ichi stories.)