Read Time: 3 minutes
Author: Amy Olsen
I was 16 when I first heard the term downwinder. I didn’t know what it meant, just that my beloved grandma was one. As an adult, I learned it referred to the people who lived down wind of the nuclear testing in Nevada. They had been exposed to high levels of radiation and many were diagnosed with cancer because of it. It meant the small town my grandmother adored and raised her children in was to blame for her cancer diagnosis.
My grandparents were married on June 28, 1941. They moved to the small Southern Utah town of Panguitch in 1946. They had three children: uncle Mark, my mom Linda, and aunt Kathleen. Grandpa was a mechanic and Gram worked at the Utah State University (USU) Extension Office as a Home Demonstration Agent. She traveled all over Garfield County for work and got to know and love its residents. Years later, any time I met someone who knew her, they would gush about how wonderful she was. It made me so proud to tell people I was Flora Bardwell’s granddaughter.
In 1958, my grandpa was killed in an automobile accident. Gram continued to work and raise her kids in Panguitch. She loved being part of the community. Even after she left to pursue a master’s degree and career at USU in Logan, she returned frequently. My parents now live in her home in Panguitch, which keeps her memory close.
When Gram was 72, she told my aunt she needed to go to the hospital right away. That was enough to alert us—Gram never got sick. Because diagnostic imaging wasn’t what it is now, it took two months to find out what was going on. When we learned Gram had pancreatic cancer—one of more than 20 types of cancer connected to radioactive fallout—it had already metastasized to multiple organs. She died a few short months later on December 9, 1990.
My grandmother influenced me deeply. She was kind and loving. Anyone was welcome in her home. It didn’t matter what time of day or night you arrived, she had a warm meal ready. She was fiercely loyal, no-nonsense, and an extremely hard worker. But she also loved to relax and play, especially with her grandkids. My father was in the Army, so we moved all over the world. Whenever Gram came to visit, there would be fresh homemade cinnamon rolls, a trip to the fabric store and a handmade dress or two, and lots of love.
I didn’t inherit Gram’s incredible homemaking skills, but I got a few things from her. I strive to be kind and welcoming. I try not to judge people, just like she taught me. Shortly after I started working at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), I covered a press interview with HCI researchers Martin McMahon, PhD, and Conan Kinsey, MD, PhD, about a recent discovery in pancreatic cancer treatment. I felt Gram with me that day. In that moment, I realized I have the opportunity to be a voice for so many patients like my grandma. I feel her in every patient story we share, every research study we publish, and every employee we spotlight.
My mother and her siblings are also downwinders. Luckily, they are all cancer-free at this point. And I know Gram is with me when I nag them to get their cancer screenings.
Amy Olsen is a member of the Huntsman Cancer Institute Communications and Public Affairs team. She manages all social media.