Cancer wing

Though 20 years have already passed since the Chernobyl catastrophe occurred, its mournful legacy needs yet to be analysed. What many years of the stress left to the population? Why resettled people are prone to cardiovascular system disorders while oncologic illnesses grow like an avalanche among emergency workers that responded to the Chernobyl emergency?
The science is still in search for answers to these questions. But it has defined the major point: first of all, Chernobyl affected the younger generation of the Belarusians. It is thyroid cancer among children and teenagers that has been the only echo directly attached to the consequences of the catastrophe. Although, according to professor Yuri Demidchik, head of the oncology department of Belarusian State Medical University, Belarusian scientists had to prove this unarguable fact to the world community for a long time.

— Our observations were treated sceptically. Experts would come here, would have a look at our samples themselves, looking for errors. But we had enough arguments on our side. The truth is that cancer among children is a rarest phenomenon. On the average, there is 0.5 cases of thyroid cancer per one million children, that is theoretically in Belarus such a diagnosis should be made once in two years. That was the situation before the Chernobyl emergency. This morbidity level is preserved today in European countries. But in our country four years after Chernobyl the situation radically changed. Initially we registered 29 new cases per year, then 67, later on 90... Now we are experiencing another peak — adult morbidity. Every year the diagnosis “thyroid cancer” is made for 1,000 people. During the entire medical history before the the Chernobyl catastrophe slightly more than 1,700 Belarusians had such diagnosis in their case histories.

— The figures speak for themselves. And what counterarguments did your opponents have?

— The key reason was as follows: “In Belarus the thyroid cancer diagnostics practice has improved, therefore the figures are going up”. But only people with a shallow understanding of the cancer nature may speak so. It is not an illness one can hide. Alas, cancer will be obvious. And then, one in six of children were diagnosed for advanced cancer, with metastases in the lungs. Besides, the geography of the problem was totally clear. The lion’s share of the cases was registered in southern areas, which were most affected by the catastrophe, — Gomel Region and Pinsk District.

— Maybe, the international experts expected another way of developments? In its time the nuclear catastrophe in Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to an increase in leucosis cases.

— In Hiroshima and Nagasaki the radiation effect was completely different — a powerful one-time gamma and neutron irradiation, which affected the entire body. In Belarus radioactive iodine was the problem: residents of the affected areas either breathed it or received it with food. Our thyroid gland is designed to recover even slightest concentrations of iodine. Here we have another medical problem. As far as other oncologic diseases are concerned, in my opinion it is quite difficult to link their growth directly with the Chernobyl problem. Probably, the role of other factors — social, economic, psychological — is great as well.

— Yuri Yevgenyevich, from the medical point of view who are still threatened by the Chernobyl catastrophe?

— The risk group includes residents of southern areas of Belarus, who were aged under 18 as the catastrophe occurred. As you can understand, today the problem is not the problem of children or teenagers: more and more young people and adults aged over 46 get ill with thyroid cancer. “Chernobyl Children” have grown up, gone to settle down all over Belarus, and now the illness is registered practically in every corner of the country. We are facing new problems already. For example, thyroid cancer is registered with a young pregnant woman or people, who had their thyroids removed in the past and were treated with radiation therapy, want to have kids. What to do next, what children these will be? Nobody in the world knows. Belarus is just acquiring this hard experience.

— And what practice shows? What Is your forecast for the future?

— Thanks to wise policies, Belarus managed to minimise consequences of radiation impact. And now every man or woman, who comes to the local clinic, is suggested to take a thyroid diagnostics test just for preventive examination. Mobile international groups are doing well in the affected areas. The total clinical examination of people in Mogilev and Gomel regions plays its part. It allows detecting early cases of the illness, when it responds well to treatment. Suffice it to say that only two kids died of thyroid cancer.

Anyway, this illness, I would say, has acquired the social aspect. The number of Belarusians living without thyroids and granted lifetime hormone treatment by the state, need rehabilitation, constant lab monitoring, is on the rise. We should be ready for the problem to become national during the time of the generation, which was affected by the radiation.

by Lyudmila Gabrilovich
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