PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

October 14, 2013

Breast cancer proves sisterhood for LSC-PA instructors

Mary Meaux
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — Seated at a cafeteria-style table in the food court at Lamar State College-Port Arthur, four women spoke candidly about their experiences with breast cancer.

Heavy rain poured from the darkened sky outside, overshadowing the topic but not mirroring the conversation. The women, who are all instructors at the college, included Monteel Copple, Mavis Triebel, Michelle Askew and Kathy Guidry.

Instead of doom and gloom the women spoke with a matter-of-fact tone, comparing experiences and sharing laughter.

Coppel is a 25-year survivor, having been diagnosed with a lobular cancer in the summer of 1988.

“I had a mastectomy and very aggressive chemotherapy twice a month,” Coppel, a longtime history professor and former educator in Port Arthur ISD, said. “My claim to fame is that I had every chemo treatment on time.”

Chemo patients should adhere to a healthy diet and must undergo blood work prior to treatments and blood counts must be within a specific range in order to undergo treatment. Coppel, 70, underwent eight successive months of chemo on time, she added.

“I’m still monitored every year and faithfully have mammograms,” she said. “And I’m healthy as a bear.”

Triebel, 82, a longtime government instructor, was diagnosed with a rare form of malignant calcifications in 1987. She is now 27 years cancer free.

Her life may have taken a different turn had she not taken the advice of her daughter and doctor. At the time of diagnosis Triebel was working on her PhD at Texas A&M University. Cancer would have to wait.

“I told my doctor ‘women don’t die from breast cancer.’ I was busy at the time working on my PhD. My doctor said, ‘this will look good on your tombstone, Mavis Triebel, PhD.’”

Triebel’s surgery included a modified mastectomy and her body was prepped for a tissue expander and reconstruction which included a silicone implant. She went back to the hospital twice a week and 1/4 cup of salt water, or saline, was inserted in the area to create a space for the new breast implant. As her chest was slowly expanding she wore oversized clothes because she could not wear a bra.

“Then staph infection set in,” she said. “They had to go in and scrape the infected area and re-sew the incision. Later, when the area was twice as big as they wanted, they called me back in and implanted the silicone under my shoulder muscle.”

Because of the area the implant was placed Triebel will never be able to move that specific muscle and has practically no feeling on that side of her body near the implant, she said.

Triebel did not have to undergo cancer treatments because the surgery took away all of the cancerous cells. But, 10 years later, M.D. Anderson invited her to testify on behalf of the silicone implant issue after a series of lawsuits came about.

Now, as a 27 year breast cancer survivor, Triebel has no answers as to why she was struck with the rare cancer. She does not smoke nor drink and has no family members with the cancer.

Askew, 57, is an 11-year breast cancer survivor who underwent three major medical procedures at once — gallbladder surgery, a hysterectomy and lumpectomy — something that is unheard of today.

The breast cancer, she said, was discovered when she underwent surgery for uterine cancer. She underwent chemo and radiation and a lumpectomy.

“I had surgery, chemo and radiation in the end. Nowadays that’s flipped, radiation first to shrink the cancer,” Askew, a longtime math instructor, said.

At age 54 Guidry is the youngest survivor of the group and a 4-year breast cancer survivor. Her story is as unique as those of the rest of the women seated at the table.

“I was diagnosed in May 2009 and started radiation treatment on my 50th birthday,” Guidry said. She also underwent a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous growth and a lymph dissection which came back cancer free.

“No chemotherapy,” she said. “But I had 35 radiation treatments, Monday through Friday for seven weeks here in Port Arthur.”

With radiation comes burns but Guidry, who is a vocational nursing instructor, was determined not to let cancer get in the way of her daily life. She continued to work with her students during clinicals. She lost time at work when the burns became severe.

“They (doctors) thought they would have to do skin grafts,” she said referring to the severity of the burns.

The shared experiences of breast cancer, which are similar yet different, have created a bond between the women. They knew each other on campus but didn’t realize they had cancer in common.

“We’re survivors,” Triebel said.

E-mail: mmeaux@panews.com

Twitter: MaryMeauxPANews