Stories of Hope

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Finding the Positives of Cancer

Article date: July 11, 2005

Pam Matthews and Family

I want to be a shining example of what a survivor is. I want to let others know, 'I did it and I'm OK!'


One Survivor’s Story of Self-Discovery

On that day, as she and her family were out and about exchanging Christmas gifts, Matthews got a call on her cell phone. It was from her doctor's office, telling the 33-year-old mother of two she had stage III breast cancer.

Matthews could not believe what she was hearing. "I had no family history, didn't do self-exams. I didn't think it happened to people my age," she recalls thinking.

The Caregiver Becomes the Patient

One year earlier, both of Matthews' sons (now ages 7 and 12) and her husband had been diagnosed with a form of spina bifida, a spinal cord disorder. She became the glue that held her family together as they worked through what she recalls was "a very rough year."

Although she had been feeling extremely tired, she simply chalked it up to taking care of her family. But then she discovered a lump in her breast and went in for a mammogram. Upon learning that she had breast cancer, the roles were suddenly reversed. Matthews remembers thinking, "Here I am, the Rock of Gibraltar for my family, and then everything turned."

Just as she had been there a year earlier for her family, they were with her every step of the way. She remembers her husband telling her, "We'll get through this like we have everything else."

Since Matthews' cancer was already stage III (it had spread to lymph nodes, but not other parts of the body) when it was discovered, she decided to have a mastectomy, which was followed by 8 months of chemotherapy. Matthews also ended up having to take a year off from work -- a year in which every week, someone from her office would drop by with food and would spend time just visiting.

"I was fortunate to have just an amazingly supportive employer and co-workers," she says.

Matthews credits her son Ben with teaching her how to be a good patient. In addition to having spina bifida, Ben was previously diagnosed with a cyst on his brain and spent many of his early years in hospitals and with doctors.

"Everything I learned about being a good patient, I learned from my youngest son," Matthews says. "My family was really integrated into the medical world, so that helped a lot. … It made that part of it not so scary."

Matthews admits, though, that it was a big change for both of her sons.

"My little guy was used to being in the bed and being the patient, not seeing Mommy in the bed," she says.

'Chapters from the Book of Pam'

While the love and support of her family was invaluable, Matthews also found journaling to be especially helpful before, during, and after her treatment.

"I really just found it hard to communicate with people," she says, "telling my same story over and over again. I found it easier to journal my feelings."

Once a month, Matthews shared her journal entries via email to family and friends under the title "Another Chapter from the Book of Pam." Her entries had humorous and catchy titles such as "Finding Chemo" and "Miracle Grow." With each chapter, Matthews says, "I would storytell experiences that enlightened with laughter, encouraged people to believe along with me that I would be OK."

Friends on Matthews' email list would then forward her emails to their friends. With a click of the "send" button, she would quickly receive return emails of support and encouragement, emails of appreciation for sharing her story, and emails asking her to "write more!" She was amazed at the outpouring of support, from both friends and complete strangers all over the country.

Setting an Example

Matthews' personal cancer experience made her realize several things. One was that her diagnosis really scared people.

"They would look at me and wince, thinking 'that could be me,' " she remembers. It was then that she found her mission -- to make people understand that her cancer "was not the end but a beginning."

Matthews shares her optimistic spirit and positive outlook through her work as a Reach to Recovery volunteer. She matter-of-factly says, "I feel like I was meant to have cancer for a reason -- to help other women."

Matthews' diagnosis also made her realize that she was a role model for other cancer survivors. She recalls one of her office visits to get her chemo when she was feeling down and completely exhausted -- and everything from the expression on her to face to the way she was dressed conveyed how badly she felt. Waiting in the office that day was a woman there for her first chemo treatment.

"I remember her looking at me and the fear in her eyes when she saw how I looked," Matthews recalls.

It was at that moment Matthews realized she had the opportunity to be what she calls "a walking advertisement of what's possible." So now, when she goes in for her check up every 3 months, she makes an effort to look as good and be as "up" as she can.

"I want to be a shining example of what a survivor is," she says. "I want to let others know, 'I did it and I'm OK!' "

Finding the 'Can' in Cancer

Through her experience as a survivor, Matthews even adopted a personal mantra -- find the CAN in cancer. It's a mantra that she encourages other survivors to adopt.

"I had cancer, but I CAN make a difference, I CAN grow," she explains. Matthews also wants to remind survivors that "there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Treatments and technology are changing every day and it's all to our advantage."

Survivors can empower themselves through education, she emphasizes. Education allows people to take control of their treatment decisions, she says, although she stresses it's important to get the information about their type of cancer from reputable sources.

"You don't have to be an expert," she says, "but it's an overwhelming experience and you just want to have a starting point to learn about your cancer and the treatment options you may have."

'Ramping Up for Re-entry'

Currently cancer-free, Matthews admits that the past few years have been incredibly challenging ones for her and her family, yet she has worked hard to keep positive and optimistic.

And now, as she continues her journey as a cancer survivor, she offers these words to others like her: "Ramp up for your re-entry into the atmosphere. Your life will change, but you can make the best of it!"