Dealing with cancer: Family deals with radiation effects
PALMETTO -- George Mitchell is "tired," and willing to leave this world. He won't force it, but he's signed documents so physicians can refrain from providing treatment that could save his life.
George, 50, and his family trace his maladies to when he and his brother, Doyce, were boys working for a day labor service that sent them to URC, Uranium Recovery Complex, near their home in Mulberry, Fla. They now live on Jack Pickle Lane, a Lewisburg address that's just east of Marshall County.
"A lot of my illnesses came from the environment where we grew up," George said.
George and Doyce shoveled rocks into five-gallon buckets and carried them from one place to another. They didn't know about radioactivity or what it can do to the human body.
The Mitchells are clear that it's probably impossible to say with certainty that their illnesses are from URC, a nearby phosphorus plant, the bright Florida sun, the boys' work with asbestos, or their swimming in surface water of unknown quality.
"We grew up swimming in the water and eating the fish we caught," George said.
"I just want somebody to benefit from what happened to me," he said at Dr. Melvin Lewis's office on Mooresville Highway with the physician who patched him up from a motorcycle accident in 1982.
Referring to George's skin cancer, Dr. Lewis confirms information about the sun. It's an on-going nuclear reaction and sunburn is similar to radiation exposure, so people should take his grandmother's advice. She wore a bonnet when working in the cotton fields to protect her skin. Use sunscreen.
"Getting a sun tan is not the best thing to do," Dr. Lewis said. "Skin is one giant organ over our body. It regulates our fluids and removes toxins from our body. We take our skin for granted too much."
George always wears long-sleeved shirts now.
Too much sun and exposure to radiation can cause skin cancer, Dr. Lewis said. A Vanderbilt physician, Dr. Anna Clayton, indicated much the same thing in written remarks in response to questions about George's health.
"Mr. Mitchell has suffered from a large number of squamous-cell carcinomas, an unusual amount for his age," Dr. Clayton said.
Squamous cells may appear scaly to the naked eye.
"He continues to undergo periodic evaluation, biopsies, and excisional surgery to remove squamous-cell carcinomas that appear," Dr. Clayton said.
George has an appointment on May 19. More surgery to remove squamous-cell carcinomas is anticipated. "I don't know if I want this next surgery done," he said.
Dr. Clayton continued: "Squamous-cell carcinomas can be caused by exposure to sun as well as radiation and increased numbers of them are reported in patients with significant radiation exposure," she said.
"He did lose his eye due to squamous-cell carcinoma," she said of surgery that removed George's right eye.
Dr. Clayton is an assistant professor of medicine in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Division of Dermatology. Her office is at 100 Oaks Mall.
The Mitchells' health became an issue for the Bedford County Board of Zoning Appeals in March 2007 when the panel granted them a temporary use permit on a year-to-year basis that sets aside strict enforcement of zoning codes limiting the number of "principal structures" on less than 15 acres.
The Mitchells have had four. The parents' house and three mobile homes; one each for the brothers, George, Doyce and Eric. They've paid for three permits each year.
Bedford's director of planning, zoning, building and codes, Chris White, has authority to grant extensions on payment and this year he's granted leeway for the Mitchells who had been paying $30 for three extra dwellings. The fee per unit went up to $100 before White became director eight months ago.
The increase was "to be more consistent with other counties," White said. Furthermore, there was abuse of what might be seen as a loophole. White knows it's not typical to have three permits on one lot, but he also acknowledges the Mitchells' have a "greater burden."
Electrical and mechanical breakdowns resulted in George deciding to give his trailer away. He lives in his parents' house now.
So, as the boys' mother, Naomi, scrapes money together for the fees from government assistance that sustains the family, she, her husband, Lawrence "Buddy," and the brothers are frank about their family.
Doyce had a "pouty lip," Naomi says of her son's lower lip. It protruded like he was pouting. Now, it's thin since surgeons removed cancer. When they were eight and 12 years old, her sons went to the beach, riding in the back of a pickup truck and Doyce's lower lip got sunburned.
She's fair skinned and sees that and sunlight as a reason for what ails her on her leg. Doyce and George have red hair. George's is darker, but both have had problems with their skin.
In Florida, Buddy was a carpenter. Much of his work was outside and he has skin lesions on his arms. Naomi was a nurse's aide at Lakeland General Hospital.
The Mitchells moved to Palmetto on a suggestion from Sam Parolini of the Belfast Community who grew up with Buddy at Mulberry, Fla. Sam works for a construction company on Fishing Ford Road and is out of state now on a job.
Tennessee's sunlight, however, seems less punishing than Florida's Naomi said.
George and Doyce worked at URC for about five weeks.
Asked what she thinks when watching TV news about the nuclear power plant that broke down in Japan during the earthquake, Naomi replied, " There are going to be a lot of people dying; not right now, but in years to come from the radiation.
"I believe a lot of people who may die... may say it's from radiation, but the doctors are not going to say it's from radiation..."
George has also had surgery to treat an aneurism in his head. There's another that can't be treated.
He feels as though he died, but was brought back by medical professionals before surgery for his first aneurism.
George's face hurts almost all the time, he said. After working in a garden, he comes in and feels like he's burned by the sun. He refuses to take pain medicine.
"Now," he said, "I'm tired."