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Arlene Polk is not the typical breast cancer survivor

Posted on WordPress October 20, 2014

 

  

In 1948, Arlene Polk was 33 and living on a farm in Mountain View, Mo., with her husband Kenneth and their three children: Jeannette, Edward, and Sharon.

Everyday Arlene would fetch water from a pump for use in the house since they didn’t have running water but one day something changed.

Arlene remembers reaching down to pick up a pail of water. She felt a pain in her arm as the weight of the pail pulled at her muscles. The pain started in her right bicep and ended at a place in her breast.

Arlene knew that something was wrong and mentioned it to her family. No one thought it was anything serious but Arlene knew she needed to get medical attention. She had felt a lump and it had been there for a year.

“I had to lie to (Kenneth) to get the car,” said Arlene.

It was blackberry picking time. The family would go over to Edward Rowlett’s, Arlene’s father, farm to pick blackberries for canning. They’d pick enough to keep the family in blackberries until the next season. But the farms were far enough away from each other that Arlene couldn’t carry them home. She would need the car to haul the berries. This gave Arlene a chance to see a doctor. The only problem was, she had to bring her children with her.

“I bought the kids some (comic) books and they looked at them while I was in the doctor’s office,” said Arlene.

The doctor confirmed that Arlene had a lump in her breast. He wanted to send her to a hospital in West Plains, Mo., to have the lump removed and analyzed. The doctor told her that if the lump proved to be malignant, they would have to remove her right breast.

 

About that same time, Arlene’s father came to ask Kenneth to help him harvest his wheat crop.

Kenneth told his father-in-law that he couldn’t help

him because he had to take Arlene to the hospital.

He explained about the lump in her breast and the

doctor’s decision to send her to the hospital but

Arlene’s father intervened. He insisted that his

daughter be taken to a cancer hospital in

Savannah, Mo.

Kenneth and Brady Rowlett, Arlene’s brother, had to

overhaul their car so it could make the trip. “ It was

300 miles to Savannah,” said Arlene. “When we got

up there, they examined me and said that it could

be cancer and that if I had (a radical mastectomy)

done, then I’d have a 50-50 chance.”

Arlene decided to submit to the procedure.

A radical mastectomy typically involves the surgical removal of the entire breast tissue, the overlying skin and nipple, the underlying pectoral muscles and all the lymph nodes in the armpit.

The procedure Arlene went through removed these same tissues and muscles, however, the method her doctor used was extremely different from the surgical procedures used today.

Arlene and her husband returned home to prepare for her procedure. She and her husband hired a man to tend to the chores on their farm while they were gone. Family members were enlisted to help look after the Children. The one thing they didn’t do was make provisions in case of Arlene’s death.

“They didn’t do that sort of thing back then,” said Arlene. “The kids just went to the family.

Once more, Kenneth drove his wife to the hospital in Savannah. Arlene was checked into the hospital, then the couple said their goodbyes. That night Kenneth left to start the long drive back home.

In the morning, the doctors began the procedure that would take approximately seven days to complete and another 36 days of recovery before Arlene would be allowed to go home, if she survived.

“They gave me a whole grain of Morphine and I (felt like) I was just four inches from the ceiling,” said Arlene. “They put Vaseline all around the area they were going to treat. They marked it with indelible pencil.”

The nurse placed a barrier of twisted cotton strings around the outside of the area to be treated. The she placed a layer of cotton over the entire area and saturated it with, what Arlene described as, “a liquid that looked like milky water.”

“I didn’t feel anything because I had a grain of Morphine in me,” said Arlene with a laugh.

Nurses continued to come in periodically and resaturate the dressing. Arlene cannot be sure of how often it was done due to her medicated state.

 

The next morning, the nurse came in and gave Arlene another half a grain of Morphine.

“They took scissors and cut (the flesh) all around the pencil mark,” said Arlene. “But that was all dead. They just cut it off in strips.”

The nurse told Arlene not to watch as the removal was being performed but Arlene had to look.

“She just laid a paper in the floor and dropped the strips on it,” said Arlene. “Well, she went across the room to the lavatory and got a cloth to wash my back. I looked down when she was over there. It looked like boiled pig skin and I saw the nipple laying there on top,”

When the nurse returned, she cleaned Arlene up and got her fresh clothes. Once Arlene was dressed the procedure started all over again.

“She covered (my breast) again with cotton and saturated it,” said Arlene. “I don’t know how often she did that but each time she’d come in she’d take it off and scrape all the dead tissue off. It took three days to get my whole breast off and up under my arm.”

After the initial removal was complete, the doctors treated the affected area with a Slippery Elm poultice. It would take another seven days for the last of the dead tissues to become loose enough to remove.

During her treatments, Arlene remained isolated in the hospital. She was in a semi-private room without a roommate. Her husband and children were 300 miles away on a farm with no telephone. Arlene was unable to write because she was right-handed and that was the side being treated. Arlen didn’t have anyone to turn to until after the procedure was over.

“Kenneth came up there and was in the room when they took the dressing off of (my right) side,” said Arlene. “He said that there was a place under my arm that you could put an egg in. It was that big of a hole under my arm.”

Kenneth’s visit was brief. Once he had seen that his wife had made it through the procedure, he went back home to take care of their farm and children.

After the removal was complete, Arlene was allowed to get up and move around the hospital ward. Once outside of her room, she began to meet some of the other cancer patients. Many had gone through procedures similar to what she had endured.

Eventually, a roommate was placed in with Arlene. Her condition continued to improve. Her doctor told her that she would be allowed to go home as soon as the hole in her arm had healed.

“If they had let me come home and it started bleeding, (no one would) have known what to do,” said Arlene.

After 46 days in the Savannah hospital, Arlene was allowed to go home. She would be required to come back to the hospital every year for the next five years for a check-up: to make sure the cancer hadn’t returned.

 

A nurse had shown Arlene how to change her dressing and treat the affected area so that it would continue to heal. Arlene’s mother came to her house every morning to change the dressing for her.

“I had the (first dressing put on) about the 15th of July,” said Arlene. “About the 15th of October was the last dressing mama put on it.”

Arlene had to exercise her am at home so that she could regain some of the movement she lost due to the muscle loss and inactivity. Sharon, who was 5 at the time, and Jeannette, who was 13, don’t have many memories of their mother’s ordeal but they do remember seeing her perform the exercises.

“She had to walk her fingers up the wall,” said Sharon.

Jeannette added, “When she could walk her fingers up so high on the wall, mama knew she could stop doing the exercises.”

When Arlene was able to start doing chores around the house. She began to notice a pain in her right shoulder. She was afraid that the cancer had come back.

“I didn’t say anything to anybody, not even Kenneth,” said Arlene. “ I just sat down and wrote to (the doctor). I told them what happened.”

Luckily for Arlene, the doctor wrote back telling her that the cause of the pain was due to the lack of muscle she had on her right side. The strain that she had put on her remaining muscles was the cause of her discomfort.

For the next five years, Arlene would make yearly pilgrimages to the hospital in Savannah. Arlene had never been told whether the lump she had removed was in fact cancerous. She was determined to find out during her final check-up.

“I thought, I’m going to ask them if I had cancer,” said Arlene. “When they had my chart out there . . . I didn’t. I thought, why ask and know. It wouldn’t help now after five years.”

Arlene was told that she didn’t have to come back for any more check-ups. Looking back, Arlene says she doesn’t regret having her breast removed. Unlike many women who have had radical mastectomies, she never felt any less of a woman after losing her breast.

“It never bothered me any at all,” said Arlene. “I didn’t make a living with that breast and Kenneth never did treat me any different than he had before. I would have been a lot worse off if they hadn’t gotten it all, if it was cancer”

67 years have passed since Arlene had her breast removed. She will be turning 100-years-old November 1st, 2015. She has grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren. Time has allowed her to look back on her ordeal with humor.

She is confident that whether it was actually cancer or not, she made the only decision she could, given the circumstances.

 

When asked how she feels about the whole ordeal, Arlene has a simple answer. “I tell you, I’ve been put through the mill,” said Arlene with a laugh.

Note: Arlene passed away in May of 2015. She was 99 and a half years old. She passed from natural causes with her daughter, Sharon, by her side. 

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Dr. Nichols' Sanatorium for Cancer, Savannah, Mo.

Breast Cancer: Not Just a Woman’s Disease
Posted on October 21, 2014


NOTE: This is an article I wrote when I worked for The Sunflower newspaper at Wichita State University. I am posting a few of my old articles online for examples of my writing style.

Breast cancer is a common disease in women. It claims thousands lives every year. What most people don’t realize is that a small percentage of those are men.

“When they look at the 1999 statistics, they predict that there will be 43,700 deaths from breast cancer and 43,300 of those will be women and 400 of them will be men,” said Trudy Baker, nurse practitioner at Student Health Services.

Breast cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are detected in the tissues of the breast. The most common type of breast cancer is ductal cancer. Each breast is com-posed of sections called lobes. Lobes contain smaller sections called lobules.

These two sections are connected by thin tubes call ducts. It is in the cells of these connective ducts that ductal cancer can develop.

Other types of breast cancer are lobular carcinoma and inflammatory breast cancer. Lobular carcinoma s more often found to be in both breasts. Inflammatory breast cancer is less common than the other types of cancer. Symptoms of this type of cancer include swelling, redness and the breast can feel warm.

Few lumps are discovered during physical visits. Most are found by the patients themselves. Women and men are encouraged to perform monthly breast exams.

Especially if there is breast cancer in their family,” said Baker. “If they have a mother or someone who has had breast cancer, they need to be aware of that, that increases their chances.”

A person’s chance of recovering and their treatment options depends on many factors, including the stage that the cancer is in when detected and the characteristics of the cancer. People who are familiar with the normal condition of their breasts are more likely to notice when there has been a change. If you detect any change in the color, shape, or texture if your breast tissue, see your doctor immediately.

Currently, the 5-year survival rate for men with breast cancer is about 70%. That is slightly lower than that of women.

“With men, the breast cancer is usually found later because they don’t examine their breasts,” said Baker. “If they examine their breasts and find it early then (their survival rate) is greater than 90%.”

Here are a few tips for better breast health:

  • Do a breast self-exam every month on the same day. This                                                                    increases the likelihood that you will continue to do the                                                                          exams. Men can combine this with a monthly testicular                                                                            exam that is also recommended.

  • Have a regular physical examination. Your doctor can                                                                                address further issues that are unique to your health and                                                                        family history.

  • Limit your intake of alcohol. Heavy drinking has been                                                                       associated with an increased chance of developing                                                                                 breast cancer.

Early detection is the key to surviving this disease. Your doctor can provide you with a shower card that illustrates how to perform breast self-exams. Students can pick up these cards at the Student Health Services in room 209 of Ahlberg Hall or call 978-3620 for more information.

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Photo by Pablo Nidam available on Scopio for editorial use

Health Beat: Sickle Cell Anemia
Posted on February 5, 2015

Note: This article was written for The Sunflower Newspaper when I was a student at Wichita State University in Kansas. 


Awareness necessary for extended life


In keeping with Black History Month, Student Health

Services is promoting sickle cell anemia awareness.

Sickle cell anemia is a hereditary blood disease that is

most common in African Americans.

“One in 10 will have a trait and one in 400 will have the

disease,” said Trudy Baker, nurse practitioner at Student

Health Services.

Persons who inherit one sickle cell gene from one parent

will have the “sickle cell trait.” Individuals with the sickle

cell trait are also known as carriers. For carriers, the

condition is benign and never develops into sickle cell

anemia.

“With the sickle cell trait, sometimes, there are no symptoms at all,” said Baker.


It is the children of carriers who are at risk. Persons who inherit one sickle gene from each parent will develop full-blown sickle cell anemia.

What they inherit is a gene for a type of hemoglobin that forms long chains when it gives up oxygen. It is these chains of hemoglobin that change the typically round red blood cells into abnormal “sickle” shaped cells.

The abnormal shape of the sickled cells makes it difficult for them to pass through the blood vessels. The sickled cells can get clogged in the vessels and block normal blood flow. This can cause a loss of oxygen to the vital organs and tissues. It is the lack of oxygen that causes some of the symptoms experienced by those with sickle cell anemia.

It is estimated that about 2 million people in the United States are carriers for sickle cell while another 72,000 have sickle cell anemia.

“Persons who have the disease may have swelling of the joints, may have some body aches,” said Baker. “They have more difficulty recovering from infections and they get more colds.”

Other symptoms of this disease include fatigue, shortness of breath, jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes), delayed puberty, eye problems (including blindness) and stroke.

Currently there is no cure for sickle cell anemia and the life expectancy for people with the disease is reduced, but there is hope.

The life expectancy used to be short but now the life span is increasing because researchers are finding more things to control the symptoms, said Baker. They are learning more things about the disease.

Due to the development of increasingly effective treatments, those with sickle cell anemia can live well into their 40s. It is possible for people with the disease to lead normal lives that include holding down a job and raising a family. The key is early detection and treatment.

Student Health Services provides sickle cell anemia tests at no charge to Wichita State students.

“The reason why we can get it at no charge is that we send it to Wesley,” said Baker. “They do them for the whole general area. So the turnaround time (for results) is about two weeks.”

Appointments are not necessary. Stop by Student Health Services in Room 209 of Ahlberg Hall or call 978-3620.

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Normal Cell

Sickle Cell