Radiation's split personality

I read with great interest an op-ed piece by Ritsuko Komaki on the crisis at the quake-struck Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan. Komaki is a professor of radiation oncology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and a survivor of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima.She relates how, as a young medical student, she learned that "while radiation is one of the causes of cancer, it can also be used to cure it.""Unlike the full-body radiation people experienced from the atomic bomb, radiation therapy is a well-planned course of treatment," she continues. "And while doses are high, they are targeted to kill cancer cells and protect the surrounding tissue as much as possible."Because of the atomic bombings during World War II, many Japanese are afraid of radiation, even when they might benefit from it as a cancer treatment, Komaki says. Fear of radiation drives many cancer patients to seek surgery first, even if they are not candidates for surgery.One thing is clear: radiation can hurt and help. By harnessing its power, we can unleash its enormous potential for good. But when we underestimate its strength and overestimate our abilities, we set ourselves up for disaster.The real tragedy in Japan is the human toll exacted by the quake and tsunami--a realty that is now being eclipsed by fear of nuclear disaster. To be sure, the debris will be cleared, buildings and homes will be erected anew, the dead will be mourned, the sick will recover and shattered families will find a way forward. But if the fear of radiation's wrath--born at Hiroshima and Nagasaki--is intensified by misinformation and sensationalism, then more generations of Japanese will forego lifesaving treatments or refuse to apply their considerable talents to careers and research linked to radiation.How has radiation affected your life? Has it been a source of healing or harm?