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Know the West

It was written on the wind

Cancer takes the life of a radiation-exposed family member


My brother took his own life a year ago this August. He was not wrestling with depression or drug abuse, and he was not recently divorced or fired or bankrupt. David lived a life of uncommon talent and accomplishment and hope, right up to the end. He killed himself only because he could no longer bear the pain caused by thyroid cancer.

We spent our first years in Dixon, N.M., where many generations of family before us had lived. It was also downwind from Los Alamos, birthplace of the atomic bomb that was exploded at the Trinity site in northern New Mexico in 1945.

The thyroid cancer my brother had is strongly associated with radiation exposure. A year younger than me but always the grubbier and more adventurous one, David as a kid liked to eat the Dixon dirt -- "nuclear mud pies" -- he called them later. Maybe two and two go together.

In those days the poor Indo-Hispano villagers of northern New Mexico didn't know much about the dangers of radiation. I've heard stories from the years before safety regulations of laborers dumping contaminated materials into local arroyos. Some would bring home hammers and shovels and other apparently perfectly good tools, unaware of the half-lives radiating into their families and futures.

I didn't think much about Los Alamos and my brother's thyroid cancer until the forest fires that scorched Los Alamos in 2000 unleashed a towering plume of smoke that I watched veer over Dixon, I began asking around and found that by then, others had put two and two together and the fact that we were "downwinders" was common knowledge. Everyone in Dixon knew someone with an unusual type of cancer or tumor. Recent studies have confirmed high levels of radionuclides in soil and plant tissues along a swath of land north and east from Los Alamos.

Doctors discovered the cancer in David when he was 19, and performed a radical thyroidectomy that included removing half his neck muscles. From then on his spinal column was a wreck that led to years of severe chronic pain and disability. At the time, the surgeons didn't expect him to live more than another five years. Thirty-three years later he was still slugging it out.

Despite pain that he never showed, my brother never gave up. In his early 20s, he was an enormously successful community organizer in Denver, fighting for consumer protection and environmental cleanup and other social justice issues. We have a tradition of activism in our family, but David's brief career was meteoric -- working hand in hand with Gov. Dick Lamm on state legislation, testifying before Congress, getting to know Tip O'Neill, marching on Wall Street.

But meteors burn out. His illness and pain overcame him, and he couldn't keep up the grueling pace. David's suicide was not a complete surprise. He had mentioned the idea to me in recent years, as he struggled more with the pain. A couple of weeks after his death, his wife discovered a 33-page farewell letter, which he had poignantly titled "Life Story of a Nobody." It had been written a year earlier, during the last 10 days of a 40-day fast.

By the end of August he seemed ready to go, but his exit was heart-wrenching and dramatic. Unable to work because of his condition, abandoned by the government whose experiments had maimed him, and unable to qualify for disability assistance, my brother spent his last few years selling drugs for a living. No wealthy drug lord, he lived a modest life, just paying the rent and medical bills.

I'd talked to him that day, because our mother was in the hospital facing possible heart surgery. He sounded good, I thought, when he said, "Nice to talk to you, brother." Late that night, after a flurry of panicked phone calls, I learned that he was dead. During a drug bust at his house in Denver, handcuffed and sitting on his front porch, with his wife watching helplessly from the car, he found a sharp object and severed his carotid artery. I think he knew he would never survive in jail and he took what seemed to him a less painful way out.

This was the ignoble end to a noble life. It came to this in part because we didn't know the dangers that floated on the wind from the nuclear weapons facility up the road, and because the government never acknowledged any connection between Los Alamos and our lives downwind. It's late, but we know now.

Ernest Atencio is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Taos and works on land and conservation issues throughout northern New Mexico.