Tahlequah Daily Press

October 8, 2013

The unstoppable Izzy

Even a bout of lung cancer couldn’t hold back a beloved local matriarch, even though it took her a long time to regain her strength after treatment.

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Isabel Baker may be retired, but she’s one of the busiest women in Tahlequah.

She’s known by many as the first mother of the Cherokee Nation, the grand dame of the Cherokee County Democratic Party, a former professor at Northeastern State University, and an active member of First United Methodist Church, to name a few.

She can be seen jetting about town in her white Cadillac, always off to one meeting or another; a tribal function to support her youngest son, Principal Chief Bill John Baker; or to a courtroom to observe her other two sons, attorneys Tim and Donn, in action.

You’d never guess she’s a cancer survivor, having lost 40 percent of her right lung to the disease in 1997.

Baker confesses to smoking as a young woman, but she quit the minute she learned she was pregnant with her first child, Tim Jr.

“When I was young, I thought it was so cool to smoke,” said Baker. “And nobody talked about it being bad for your health back then. If anything, smoking was a moral issue. I hadn’t smoked in decades when I found out I had cancer.”

In 1997, husband Tim Sr. – or “Bake,” as she refers to him – was ill, and Isabel spent a good deal of time driving him to doctor’s appointments.

“Finally, Bake said, ‘Isabel, you are all the time running me to the doctor, and you don’t have as much as a physical. Well, I’m not going to another appointment until you do,’” said Baker. “So I went to the Warren Clinic in Tulsa and had a bunch of routine tests done.”

After coming home, Baker learned her son, Donn, was set for a case in Las Vegas, and he asked his mother to go with him to help choose a jury.

“About that time, the phone rang, and it was the Warren Clinic nurse, saying the doctor wanted me to come back, because they had a problem with my chest X-ray,” said Baker. “I told her I was going to Vegas and would call and set up an appointment when I got back in a week.”

The doctor then took over the call, explaining to Baker that she really needed to come in sooner.

“I told him I was coming back in a week,” said Baker. “Well, he told me I had lung cancer, and that he’d like to make an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for me. Evidently, the specialist he wanted me to see was a classmate of his, so he took care of everything.”

After Baker returned from Las Vegas, she and Tim Sr. drove to Michigan and checked her into the Mayo Clinic.

“The doctor told me they needed to take 40 percent of my right lung, and asked if we could schedule the surgery the next day,” said Baker. “I agreed, then I called the boys. They had a heck of a time getting flights, but all of them managed to make it there that night.”

Baker said the surgery was intense.

“It was rough,” she said. “They had to go in through my back, and it took a long time to rebuild my strength.”

Baker has been in remission ever since, and has checkups regularly.

“Cancer is like a thief in the night,” said Baker. “Sometimes, you don’t have any symptoms until it’s too late. I strongly recommend everyone have physicals and get all the tests.

Baker was fortunate in that they managed to get all the cancer during the  surgery.

“I didn’t have to have chemotherapy or radiation, thank goodness,” she said. “I was so lucky.”

Over time, she’s rebuilt her strength, and continues to enjoy being active in the community.

“I am thankful for every day,” she said. “I escaped; I really dodged a bullet.”