Ten days after our mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's, we learned that she was also afﬂicted with small-cell lung cancer.
Terminal cancer, the doctor said. She had only weeks to live. She had not smoked since she'd stopped drinking.
But our father had puffed on cigars for decades. Can cigar smoke cause small-cell lung cancer? Yes.
Can secondhand cigar smoke cause small-cell lung cancer? Yes.
In 1987, while a senior in high school, my future college girlfriend, a white woman, measured radon levels in various reservation houses as part of a science project.
Our HUD house had moderately dangerous levels of radon, a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and radioactive noble gas.
Can radon cause small-cell lung cancer? Yes.
My reservation is also home to two closed uranium mines and a closed uranium mill. One mine, the Sherwood, operated for only a few years and was shut down and cleaned with award-winning thoroughness. The other mine, Midnite, which operated from 1955 to 1981, was simply abandoned and never made safe on any level.
Can uranium cause cancer?
Yes, especially when inhaled as dust.
Gated, barbed-wired, the 350-acre Midnite Mine is now dotted with massive mounds of radioactive waste rock and ore — over thirty million tons in total — and uncounted barrels of various and mysterious chemicals. For years, huge trucks hauled uranium ore through Wellpinit, passing less than a mile from my childhood home, on their way to the uranium mill located on the east side of the reservation. I remember those trucks shedding small rocks and dust as they rumbled past us Indian kids walking, running, and riding our bicycles. Many driveways and roads on our reservation were paved with those waste rocks.
Located only six miles from my childhood HUD house, the mine also contains massive covered and uncovered pits, some more than ﬁve hundred feet deep, that are ﬁlled with impossibly green and blue wastewater. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the ﬂora, fauna, and groundwater near the Midnite Mine are unsafe to eat and drink.
That radioactive groundwater has, for decades, drained down the hillside into Blue Creek, which then ﬂows into the Spokane River.
©2017 by Sherman Alexie. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Co.