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Long-term Breast Cancer Survivor Reflects on Life After 50

As I get older, I’m beginning to understand how the late effects of cancer treatment bump up against aging. I just get to wondering how the cancer and the treatments complicate things.

Pam Matthews

close up portrait of cancer survivor, Pam Matthews

Now that she’s in her 50s, Pam Matthews has more aches and pains than she used to. She also has problems with memory, breathing, neuropathy (nerve pain), and upper body weakness. She blames some of this on age, and some of it on long-term side effects from breast cancer treatment she received in her 30s.

“As I get older, I’m beginning to understand how the late effects of cancer treatment bump up against aging,” she said. “I just get to wondering how the cancer and the treatments complicate things. I get sick with colds and pneumonia so easily, I get tired easily, my memory requires me to make lots of lists, notes and reminders to get by on a daily basis. This has led me to explore things like exercise, better eating habits, better sleeping habits, stress management, etc. to try and cope with these challenges.”

Over the past year, Matthews began making lifestyle changes to eat better and exercise more and she lost 20 lbs. She cut out sugar and sugary drinks including sodas and coffees. She also joined a Livestrong program at her local YMCA in Boise, Idaho that helps cancer survivors fit more physical activity into their lives. The program has helped her define her goals and learn ways to exercise that she can keep doing even after the program ends.

“When you have cancer, the momentum of fighting the disease propels you forward, but after you finish treatment, you’re dumped back into life and then it’s up to you to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other. Programs like this acknowledge that and speak specifically to that experience and take you back to the specialized coordinated effort you become familiar with when going through treatment,” said Matthews. “It’s a solution that empowers you so that you can move forward again with your life after cancer.”

Finding the ‘Can’ in Cancer

The American Cancer Society originally told Matthews’ breast cancer story in the Stories of Hope section of our website in 2005. She had been diagnosed with stage III breast cancer at age 33. At the time, Matthews’ husband and 2 sons were dealing with their own health problems. If that wasn’t hard enough, they went on to face job losses and financial problems.

In her determination to stay positive, Matthews adopted a personal mantra, one she still embraces today. “What finding the ‘can’ in cancer means to me is there’s something good even around all of the terrible things,” said Matthews. “Everything is happening for a reason. We may not understand it now, but we will.” Matthews says the tough times have made her the person she is today. “When you’ve gone through lots of bad things you get really good at dealing with them,” said Matthews.

Back in the 2000’s, Matthew spread cheerful messages and shared her story through journal entries that she emailed to family and friends. She tried to be a role model for other survivors, to demonstrate that having cancer does not mean the end of hope. Later she relied on social media to communicate her insights about staying positive through tough times. These days she uses live video to send messages several times a week to a group of about 40 women.

“I reassure people who are going through a divorce or who’ve lost a job. I have a way of communicating with them that gives them something to think about,” said Matthews.

Today, Matthews, her husband, and sons are all healthy and working. The boys, 27 and 22, have developmental disabilities but both are living independently. The younger one is following in Matthews’ footsteps: he wants to advocate for people with disabilities and has begun writing about the challenges he’s facing as a young adult.

Becoming a caregiver

Like many women her age, Matthews is now dealing with another phase of life: aging parents. Both her mother and her mother-in-law have been diagnosed with cancer. Matthews says after having gone through cancer treatment herself, she is in a better position to know what to say and do to help both women.

Matthews’ mother-in-law found out she had breast cancer after a routine mammogram. It was caught early, and she was treated with breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy). “I sat beside her in the breast center and held her hand. She said, ‘I’m so glad you’re here,’” said Matthews.

Matthews’ mother, 73, has stage 4 ovarian cancer. And even though she lives far away in Florida with other relatives, there is still a lot Matthews says she can do to help. They talk on the phone every day, and Matthews acts as a liaison for treatment, insurance, and financial matters that can be handled through phone calls.

“I made sure I was authorized to talk with her doctors and patient navigators on her behalf,” said Matthews. “They put me on speaker during her appointments and I take notes. Later, my mother and I review them over the phone. We also talk about the end of life and what her preferences are. Cancer gave me instant street cred with my mom. It gave me a magic power nobody else has. I am the expert and she allows me to be that and she trusts me.”

Celebrating life

Matthews celebrated her 50th birthday vacationing in Maui with her family and friends. A highlight of the trip was snorkeling off a boat at Molokini Crater. Matthews and her younger son overcame their fear of swimming with fish to jump into the crystal-clear water. As the boat headed back to the marina, they were surrounded by a pod of dolphin families, including mothers with their babies and hundreds of dolphins of all ages and sizes.

“You have to find these little moments to be brave,” said Matthews. “Everything has more meaning when you still don’t know what your future holds. You never know when something is going to come back and bite you. Do the best with what you can and prepare yourself for the future. I’ve had lots of practice.”

Matthews says her sons still ask her whether her cancer is going to come back. “I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I don’t want to chase a shadow or live my life differently. If it happens, I’ll deal with it. I balance being optimistic and being thankful in the present with being realistic about the future. I’m very lucky my husband is still with me and all the people who stood beside me are still there for us. If anything should happen in the future, I know they would be there for us again in a heartbeat.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Due to the impact of COVID-19 on American Cancer Society resources, we are no longer able to review new submissions for Stories of Hope.