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Breast Cancer & The Case For Vanity

Posted on August 26, 2016, 9:45 AM

Ten years, almost to the day. That’s how long Pam Cromwell has been living with Stage IV breast cancer. Diagnosed at age 29 and about to have a milestone birthday, she spent all of her 30s not just surviving—but thriving. And she’s got vanity to thank for it.

In 2006, while she was taking a shower, she found a lump in her breast. Her first thought? Hint: it wasn’t cancer. It was another six-letter word: summer. All she wanted was to get this little lump taken care of before bikini season. It came down to vanity.

But the lump didn’t stay little for long. Pam initially visited doctors and hospitals nearby. But the results were inefficient. Tests had to be repeated because of errors. All the while, this little cyst had grown to a big cyst that was getting larger by the week.

Still, she wasn’t overly concerned. Breast cancer didn’t run in her family. And with a combined 25 siblings between her parents—18 of them sisters—Pam was pretty confident she was safe.

After weeks of local doctor visits with no answers, she was finally seen by a specialist. The call came at work. Pam blurted out, “Just say it.” She was informed she had Stage 3.5 (or 3B) breast cancer. She went to see the doctor, joined by her brother Robert Willis and best friend (who worked with the American Cancer Society), and was told she had six months to get her affairs in order.

 

Pam with one of her favorite nurses, Sue, who calls her “partner in crime”!

She might have listened to him, too. But her brother and friend likely saved her life when they decided to get a second opinion. Her friend helped her find an amazing doctor who, upon meeting Pam, remarked she’d never seen anyone go from crying to smiling that quickly in her entire career. It’s that very trait that would get Pam through everything that came after.

Pam’s new doctor wanted to get her into surgery for a unilateral mastectomy with TRAM flap reconstruction on her left side, a procedure that also requires a tummy tuck. “I was already looking into a tummy tuck for my 30th birthday,” Pam joked, “and now it was going to be covered.” Vanity strikes again, this time with a much-needed silver lining for a scary situation. The 12-hour surgery was successful—and removed a tumor that had now doubled in size.

The surgery had a positive side effect for Pam: “I learned to be my own advocate.” Pam decided it was time for a change in strategy. It was time to take charge and learn.

This new attitude prompted Pam to push for her second surgery early, which was never a matter of if but when. It was almost summer, and Pam was thinking about the beach again. They found another tumor, detected only in the operating room. Mammograms hadn’t even caught it. Chalk another one up to vanity.

Pam took everything—the missteps, the challenges, the surgeries—in stride. But the next piece of news sent her over the edge: chemotherapy would destroy her hair. “I was inconsolable,” Pam recalls, “I loved my long hair.” After a perfect comic beat, she adds, “Vanity.”

Buying a wig was a humiliating experience. She’d joined a few support groups, which told her where to shop for a wig. And not just any wig, a special made-for-cancer wig. Pam called ahead, explaining that she was a 29-year-old African American woman who just wanted to look like herself. No middle-aged helmets, no Lil’ Kim madness—she had a corporate image to maintain. Yet everything they tried to sell her took her further away from who she was. It was their idea of what a woman like her should look like.

Again, Pam became her own advocate. She went out-of-the-box, calling around until someone suggested she try a regular beauty supply store. Bullseye. That’s one of two pieces of advice Pam has for fellow patients: Buy a regular wig. (The other, by the way, is wear a button-down shirt for surgery.)

 

She went back to work with her new wig and her camouflage. (That’s what she calls her makeup, complete with special lipstick.) She wanted to show people there was nothing wrong, to make them more comfortable with her illness. She never wanted to play the cancer card.

But her boss played it for her, and Pam repeatedly experienced harassment. Even though Pam worked throughout her treatment, she was still passed up for promotions—and even demoted.

The stress got to her. Sundays gave her panic attacks, and overall she was feeling worse. (Pam believes that’s not unrelated, by the way.) So she made a change. She quit, choosing not to stay shackled to a job just for the insurance.

She started to kickbox to work through stress. You read that right. Around the doctor’s office, she was “the kickboxing girl.” Her doctor wasn’t thrilled, but former athlete Pam stuck to her guns: “You can’t take everything away from me.”

If the doctor’s plan was treating the cancer, Pam’s plan was treating the person. And it worked. A soccer coach of Pam’s had always said, “You can’t control your opponent; you can only control yourself.” Pam controlled herself by getting in shape. Like, action-hero shape. She joined a Marine-led boot camp five days a week as part of her pre-op process for her next surgery—a prophylactic mastectomy on her right side—so she wouldn’t feel as weak during her recovery. As Pam will tell you, “I don’t half-stop anything.”

Six months after leaving her old job and finally taking care of the part of herself that didn’t have cancer, miraculously, her tumor had shrunk a little. And she realized something amazing: doing things for the you that’s still “you” actually helps to heal.

Enter Pink for Pam, a charity that gives patients—and their caregivers—experiences for stress management. They cover the “extras” that are usually the first to go when you’re swimming in medical bills. She treated an entire group of patients to a nice dinner, and a new mother to a professional photoshoot so her baby would have something to remember her by (sadly, she passed shortly after). Pam knows firsthand: “When you feel good, you fight harder.”

 

Through Pink for Pam, Pam is standing up to help other people fight harder. She says, “I’m not afraid to stand up for myself because I know I can, but what about the person who doesn’t know that?” The little things are important. And Pam wants everyone to enjoy those little things that other programs aren’t covering, even if they can’t afford it.

Back in 2012, Pam stood onstage for our live 2012 SU2C show and shared her letter to cancer. She says it was the first time she felt validated in six years of fighting cancer: “It was healing just being there.” As we gear up for our live telecast event on September 9—and Pam celebrates 10 years since her cancer diagnosis on August 7—we asked Pam about her #Reasons2StandUp. She says: “My reason to stand up is curiosity for my future and what it can bring, and caregivers who have never given up on me.”

 

Surviving cancer has humbled and empowered Pam. “I am the person that I am because of it,” she says. The woman who was once “the rug people would just walk on” has learned to create boundaries where there were none. But the most surprising thing she’s learned is the raw power of touch. A hug at the right moment is everything.

That, and: “Cancer taught me how vain I am,” Pam says with a wink. And as we’ve seen, vanity at the right moment can be everything, too.

 


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