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 Pam's Story (Cont'd)

Within a week of Pam's diagnosis with Stage II breast cancer, she underwent surgery and had her right breast removed. Naturally, such invasive surgery is devastating but overall, things looked quite good. She underwent local chemotherapy treatment and eventually was declared cancer free. However, one year later, Pam felt a twinge in her back. Further examination revealed that the cancer had returned. 

This time, Pam and her husband travelled valiantly all over North America in search of an effective treatment. They tried everything. In fact, when I look back at her autopsy report, it is difficult to believe what our poor daughter endured—open breast biopsy, breast removal, removal of lymph glands (22 positive we hadn't a clue what that meant), three high dose chemotherapy treatments, body scans, many, many x-rays, bone marrow transplants, stem cell transplants, spinal taps, two thoracentesis taps, brain hemorrhage, blindness, heart problems, sinus taps, ear taps, nasal tubes, colon biopsy, pelvic biopsy, rectal catheter, bladder catheter, lung biopsy, and ventilator, not to mention many experimental drug treatments. What's worse is that this constant hell-on-earth was stretched out over several years.

When we think of what Pam went through, it's still difficult to accept or understand why she got breast cancer in the first place and why she had to have her life cut so short by it. What did she do to deserve this?

Pam was a naturally beautiful girl. She didn't bother much with make-up and she certainly didn't need it. With great skin, sparkling eyes, a beautiful smile and a cute space between her teeth that she didn't care for but which we all loved, Pam was one of the most popular girls in Sarnia. She had many friends and was always invited to every gathering. She brought many friends into her marriage and loved to entertain. There was an endless stream of company, enjoyed by all. While she was a social butterfly, Pam genuinely enjoyed talking to everyone she met and was never domineering or forward. At a party, she would make a point of speaking to everyone but would always choose a topic that appealed to the person she approached. There was something about her that attracted people and made each one feel like they were her special friend.

Growing up, Pam was always practical and a naturally hard worker. She was a sought-after babysitter and also drove a mail truck to earn extra money. She was always very frugal with her money, never carrying more than a bus fare with her because of the chance of impulse buying. It really didn't take much to please her either. She was a very kind person and cultivated friends easily because of her warm and witty personality. She loved life and good people and was rarely angry with anyone or anything. I don't think she uttered a single swear word in her entire life. If she was upset with someone, she avoided an outburst. Instead, she'd just chose her words carefully and expressed herself in a witty way that no one else in the family could quite match. She was one of those people that just never seemed to do anything wrong.

Beyond wondering why something so horrible would happen to someone so sweet, we also questioned why this disease would attack someone who lived the way Pam did.

Pam was athletic as a young girl, running and winning the 800-yard dash when she was in school, and she remained active as an adult. She loved to ski; however, after watching the movie The Other Side of the Mountain she never put on a pair of skis again. It's ironic now, but she must have valued her life and health too much to risk it on recreation. Pam's strict health consciousness made her diagnosis even more shocking to her family and friends and to Pam herself. We couldn't understand how this disease could infect someone who had never smoked, always cut the fat off meat (on the rare occasions when she ate meat), loved vegetables, worked out regularly, and at 5 ft. 9 inches, held her weight at a constant 130 pounds. Our wondering was in vain. No one could tell us what caused Pam's breast cancer or what else she could have done to prevent it.

When we found out about Pam's breast cancer, we also learned that Pam had been even more proactive about her own health than we knew. While Kay and I didn't know much of anything about breast cancer in the early 1980s, we found out that Pam did. She admitted that she had found a lump on her left breast a few years earlier when she was just 30 years old. She requested a mammogram and her doctor told her that a mammogram would not be necessary because she was too young to get breast cancer. He dismissed what she found as probably a calcified milk duct.

Pam remained actively involved in her own health throughout her treatment. She wanted to be as informed as possible and could always explain to us why she decided on what should be done and why she made that decision. She analyzed each new situation thoroughly and made what she believed was the correct decision. She was a very strong person before breast cancer, but she became a much stronger person as she went through her nightmarish ordeal. Even during the most trying times such as when her doctors spent two whole hours attempting in vain to do a spinal tap, she never whimpered nor cried but remained bent over as they had asked. I would stand outside the door during some of her most horrible treatments and procedures and admire her bravery.

Our family always believed that our brave Pam would be cured of breast cancer, and that she would return home to carry on as a mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend. Our belief in the human spirit and in the preservation of life wouldn't allow us to believe otherwise. Most of the time though, we were confused about the treatments, options and explanations that were offered by the medical community. It's unbelievably difficult to have no background whatsoever in medicine or medical terminology, but to have all kinds of technical reports thrown at you. You just feel overwhelmed and helpless.

Our feelings changed every day. Some days we were down and then the next day we'd receive numbers on blood counts that looked like an improvement and we had to show optimism. I do know that despite our outward display of optimism, we were terrified of the possibility that Pam might die and of a world without her. What would happen to her children? How could her husband cope without her? How would we feel losing such a gem? How would her three sisters and five brothers deal with it? Years later, the whole family is still changing in our attempt to cope with Pam's death.

At 7:00 on the morning of March 25, 1992, we received a telephone call from the hospital in St. Louis, Missouri where Pam was being treated. They were completely straightforward, stating that Pam was failing and that we should come quickly. They had been giving her "pressors" during the night. This medication was to maintain blood pressure through the chemical stimulation of her heart.

When we all arrived at the hospital, we were guided to a small room with very few chairs, not nearly enough for the large number of us. The head oncologist wasn't available, so an anxious, young and obviously inexperienced doctor attempted to explain Pam's condition to us. He was having a very difficult time telling us the bad news and we were having an equally difficult time absorbing it. Basically, we were told that Pam had suffered a heart attack, was unconscious and had much untold damage. There was no hope of a successful bone marrow transplant and she was still alive solely by the use of the pressors—taking them away would spell her demise.

There were 17 relatives and friends listening to this grim tale. After discussing the dire situation, we decided to withdraw her life support which we knew and understood would end her life on Earth. With 16 people standing in the hall outside her door, her husband went into her room and spoke his last words to her. He left the door open on purpose. Although Pam was unconscious, Guy talked to her with all his heart, saying that he and the family had tried everything possible to save her. The one-sided talk ended with him speaking in a clear but strained voice, saying "I am so sorry Pam, please forgive me." There was not a dry eye in the hall when he finished.

The nurses were summoned, and one of Pam's favourite nurses gave the massive morphine shot. The pressors were ceased, and within a minute her heart ceased beating and her skin grew cool. All 17 of us—Pam’s close friends and family members—were gathered around the bed when she died. Not one doctor appeared to help us through this process or to console us afterwards.

Pam’s autopsy showed that the cause of death was fulminating aspergillus and pneumonia. Her lungs were coated with a tan colour, but there was a total lack of inflammation in the area—her body was too week to initiate a reaction to the fungus or pneumonia. We all knew that breast cancer was the true culprit.

After the autopsy, Pam was flown home. The church was packed the day we celebrated her life and mourned her loss. It soon became evident that our family, Pam’s husband and her friends had all lost much more than a daughter, sister, wife and friend. We all lost our faith in the medical establishment who had assured us with each new treatment that they could cure Pam of this breast cancer, but who had admitted each time a subsequent treatment failed that not enough research had been done into breast cancer.

While we lost our confidence for a while, we weren’t going to wallow in despair. Time and time again, as we were told by many doctors that not enough research had been done into breast cancer and that it was necessary to do this research if lives were to be saved in the future, we’d ask back, "Why doesn’t somebody do something?" One day, Kay turned to me and said, "Why don’t you do something about it?"

The Breast Cancer Society of Canada received letters patent on September 5th, 1991. Our initial grass-roots effort which started in the southwestern Ontario communities of Sarnia–Point Edward has now grown into a national organization. We are dedicated to raising money for peer-reviewed research emphasizing the detection, prevention and treatment of breast cancer as well as to ultimately find a cure. Pam knew of our plans to fund breast cancer research and thanked us.

Kay and I thank Pam back in our hearts everyday for teaching us some wonderful lessons too. Before our daughter was diagnosed, we were quite oblivious to the number of women who were being affected. Through Pam we learned so much about the plight of other women like her. I think about Pam all the time, but it was almost as devastating to find out there were thousands of more daughters besides my own with breast cancer.

We hope Pam’s story will raise awareness on behalf of all breast cancer survivors and victims. And, we hope her story will teach doctors and patients that even women in their twenties and thirties are vulnerable to breast cancer and they must take any breast abnormality seriously. Pam taught us the importance of taking charge of your own health, of doing background reading and asking your doctors questions.

Finally, Pam taught us to make the most of the time we have with our family and friends. Life can be very short as it was with hers. While Kay and I and all our family always miss Pam, we've taken comfort in our mission helping others. We hope that those of you who have also been touched will also take comfort in joining our cause.

The Breast Cancer Society of Canada is a tax-exempt and registered charity (charitable registration number 137969861R0001).