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Early cancer detection saves lives in Cherokee Nation

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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Nurse practitioner Brenda Elder is a lifesaver, even though she doesn’t think so. However, no one will ever convince Sandy Long that isn’t the case.

Elder is a nurse practitioner for the Cherokee Nation currently working at W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah. Long is a Cherokee Nation citizen who went in for the normal yearly exam all women are supposed to take. According to Long, the exam was going as usual until Elder thought something was amiss. Long wasn’t concerned, as there was an area that had been ruled as clear several years ago. However, Elder insisted more tests be done.

During the 2009 ice storm, Long made her way to the Cherokee Nation Amo Health Center in Salina for some more tests. Something was found and Elder set up an appointment for Long with a specialist in the Tulsa area. When the tests results were returned, Long heard the word no one wants to hear – cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 40,000 women died last year from breast cancer. The disease does not only target females. It was estimated more than 400 men died of breast cancer last year, as well. Since 1990, more and more women have been surviving breast cancer, largely because of early detection through mammography and improvements in treatment. Each year, October is recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“After I heard the word ‘cancer’ I didn’t hear another word the doctor said. I just started to cry,” Long said.

She then called the one person she thought she could lean on to understand – Elder. That call was the beginning of what has since blossomed into a great friendship between the two.

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“I want to think I have a good relationship with each of my patients,” Elder said. “Some of them I grew up with and I feel a personal connection. Others I get to know over time and I enjoy getting to know them.”

The experience was nothing new for Elder. She has been a nurse practitioner with Cherokee Nation for nearly 16 years, starting out with Sequoyah Schools, the Jack Brown Center and Talking Leaves Job Corps before transferring to the clinic in Muskogee, now known as the Three Rivers Health Center. Two years ago, she transferred to W.W. Hastings Hospital where she now works in the Women’s Clinic.

“I enjoy being at W.W. Hastings. I get to provide health care to patients in need, educate and do disease prevention and health promotion, and I get to work with Native American people. That’s the highlight of working with Cherokee Nation.”

Long said during the treatment she and Elder built a good relationship. They would talk to one another on the phone and see one another different places around town and talk, which helped Long through the process.

“She kept me going with all the referrals and doctor visits. What they found was small and I feel fortunate it was caught soon. I truly believe she saved my life,” Long said. “Now I look at every day different.”

Elder said that is just part of her job. However, both women said they would recommend all women have regular checkups because early detection is the key.

“I am almost two years cancer free now and so far everything is good,” Long said. “I watched the sun come up over a field today – how beautiful it was. Today is a blessing.”