Alden Roberts, the father of seven children, was a schoolteacher and an outdoorsman who followed the Mormon “Word of Wisdom” all his life: no smoking, no drinking, no caffeine. His family raised their own food in their garden. “We had a cow we milked also.” In the town of Annabella there were only about 187 inhabitants, yet out of the six homes within a block of the Roberts house, three were stricken with cancer or leukemia in the space of three years. The usual statistics for leukemia are three cases a year per population of ten thousand in an area not exposed to radiation. Shortly after his neighbors’ deaths, one of his sisters died of bone cancer and the other of illness related to thyroid cancer. “It seemed odd to me that three of us so close together would come down with cancer within two or three years of each other. I just can’t see why they can’t believe it or see it,” exclaimed Roberts in his loudest shisper. His wife agreed. “It just doesn’t seem normal when you have a healthy body and you get cancer.
In March 1957 I had a lump. I was advised to go to a specialist, which I did, and was operated on. No malignancy showed then. I was teaching school in Richfield, the Ashman School. I went back to teaching and I noticed when I would go outside the air would affect the operation, so I put a scarf over it. My jaw started swelling. It puffed up quite a ways. I went back and had another operation. I came home and the swelling started again. I don’t know how long it was but I went back and had another operation. This time it was malignant, [osteo]sarcoma. I had only about three to six months to live, according to the doctors.
Doctor McMurran suggested I go to the Tumor Institute in California. At that time I had two sisters living in Los Angeles, so we made an appointment in August 1957. After a meeting of doctors they decided that all that could be done was to operate. It was terrible. They cleaned out from my heart up into the right side of my head. [That operation paralyzed his vocal cords, permanently, and he can barely speak. The skin of his jaw stretches yellow over the bone. His face on the left is cut away, as is much of his head around the ear and neck.]
After the operations in California I had cobalt treatments for seven weeks, five times a week. That made my bones brittle. While playing football with one of my sons, I broke my shoulder from a fall on the ice and it wouldn’t heal. Three months later I went to California to get this clavicle taken care of. It had to be removed. I got an infection from the scar tissue so bad that I went to Salt Lake. They scraped the bone and cleaned it up. The scar tissue kept increasing and a hole came in the right jaw. I could hardly open my mouth. Dr. Edwards cut part of my jaw bone out when they did plastic surgery so I could open my mouth better.
The intense radiation from the cobalt treatments may have cured the cancer, but they impaired Alden Robert’s immune system so badly that he could not rid himself of an infection of his sternum, which gradually grew through his skin and opened up into a hole in his chest. Future operations would replace with skin grafts those areas of his face, neck and chest that were cut down to the bone to remove the cancer and infection. One could never be sensitive enough in the delicate situation of asking to photograph a man whose cancer had so obviously eaten him alive, leaving an arm hanging uselessly at his side and his face reduced by a third. A man so firm in his belief in God reduced me to thinking of any such deity as a cosmic sadist, yet Alden Roberts was far stronger than I in this situation. He was gracious in granting my request for an image of himself. In forsaking every opportunistic rule of macho photojournalism, I hope I have given him back a portrait that is a generous, if sad, as he is.
From American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War by Carole Gallagher