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Hibakusha: Battling cancer, A-bomb survivor fights to convey effects of radiation

Mitsuo Kodama recounts the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in front of a stone monument to his junior high school classmates who died, at the current Hiroshima Kokutaiji High School in the city's Naka Ward on Nov. 9, 2017. (Mainichi)

HIROSHIMA -- "So it's finally come, has it?" 85-year-old Mitsuo Kodama thought when he received a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) -- a disease where cells in his bone marrow no longer mature into healthy blood cells -- at a hospital here in September. His planned surgery for kidney cancer was canceled.

    It's said that people who have been exposed to large amounts of radiation are prone to MDS. Kodama was 12 years old when the atomic bomb detonated roughly 850 meters away from his school in Hiroshima. As soon as he felt the flash of light in his classroom, he lost consciousness, and when he woke up, he found himself buried under the rubble of the wooden school building. He somehow managed to climb out of the wreckage and went to help a friend whose leg had been trapped in the debris. But as they were soon about to be engulfed by flames, he yelled, "Forgive me, my friend!" as he fled the scene.

    Of his roughly 300 classmates in their first year of junior high school under the prewar system, only 19 returned to classes after the bomb. Now only two are still alive. Beside the gate of the now-Hiroshima Kokutaiji High School, there stands a monument bearing the names of all the students who were lost in the bombing.

    "Every time I visit, my heart aches," said Kodama.

    Kodama graduated from Hiroshima University, and worked at a municipal government and later served as a senior managing director at a public-private joint venture. Although he married, he was never able to have children. After turning 60 years old, cancer was found one after another in his colon, stomach, skin and thyroid, and he underwent surgery 20 times. In each location, new cancer cells would emerge.

    When the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima examined Kodama's blood cells in 2007, out of 100 cells, his chromosomes had undergone "translocation," or switching, in 102 places. He had been exposed to 4.6 gray of radiation -- higher that the 4-gray level where 50 percent of people die soon after exposure. Kodama was shocked by the expert's words that his stem cells had been damaged, and there was no chance that he would ever recover. Still, he continued to visit specialists and learn more about radiation, beginning to tell his story to others in earnest.

    "I wanted to tell everyone that nuclear weapons damage humans all the way to their bone marrow," he said. While displaying photos of his own damaged chromosomes, he explains the effects of radiation on the human body while mixing in scientific data.

    Kodama participated in the NGO "Peace Boat" project in 2010, and traveled around the world by boat telling his story. There, he met Akira Kawasaki, co-leader of Peace Boat and a member of the International Steering Group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). When Kawasaki visited Hiroshima in October, the two celebrated ICAN receiving the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

    This fall, Kodama was approached by a publishing company that wanted to publish a biography on him. Feeling it was a culmination of all his work, he accepted.

    "I don't know how much longer I have to live, but I know nuclear weapons could destroy the human race. I am living so I can convey that message," he said, holding his briefcase full of photos protectively and sitting up straight. "I may be an old man, but I'm doing my best."

    (This is the fifth part of a series)

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