Pam: What a miracle looks like
The deeper Pam W. goes into her experience with breast cancer and other health issues, the more you realize this is no ordinary woman, and no ordinary story. This is a woman who, despite those profound challenges, is still here, proudly standing on her own two feet.
This is a woman, you might say, who is a bit of a miracle.
Health Issues Present Challenges
Pam's story really began 15 years ago, long before breast cancer became a part of it. It started in the late 1990s when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a potentially debilitating disease that took away her career, her mobility, and some of her memory.
Though she eventually had to leave her job as a speech assistant at an elementary school in Anne Arundel County, MD due to the memory loss caused by MS, over the years Pam had learned to live with the disease. She had retired from her job and was on disability, took her medication, and took her slow decline in stride. In just a few years she went literally from being an active person, to one who needed the help of a walker to get around, to a woman in a wheelchair.
And then things got worse.
Pam said she has what's called "fibrocystic" breasts, a condition where small benign masses are always present. The condition, she said, makes it difficult to recognize when something's there that doesn't belong. And while she has always been proactive about breast self-examinations, she said, due to her condition it was "tough to tell" if something was wrong.
In late 2009 as part of a self-examination, Pam discovered a hard lump in her left breast. "I didn't feel it until it was already too late," she said. "I'd even been having regular mammograms and nothing had shown up. This was denser than anything I'd felt before. I knew it wasn’t just a lump.”
It wasn’t. Pam had a biopsy done at a hospital in Anne Arundel County, and when the doctor called with the result he told her, “You’d better contact your surgeon.”
Initial Treatment Brings Disappointment
Because of the difficulty Pam had in identifying the lump, she chose to have a double mastectomy, which was performed at her local hospital. As part of the surgery, implants were inserted, but the result was not what she’d hoped for. “I was told they'd be a certain size, but as I was going into surgery the doctor informed me that would be impossible,” she said. “They ended up being so small I may as well have not had them. But I really felt I had no choice but to accept them."
A couple of weeks after her double mastectomy she got a call from her surgeon saying more skin would have to be removed since lab work came back that looked suspicious. So, several months later she had surgery to remove the implants and more surface skin. Spacers were also implanted at the time. Then, after approximately her fifth saline injection, Pam noticed that one of the scars from the surgery looked odd. Her surgeon was out of town so she went to see one of her colleagues. It was decided to have the implants removed.
“By that time I just said to the doctor, ‘what do I do?’ she said. “It was getting frustrating.” What the doctor suggested she do was to have a TRAM flap procedure which uses fat, muscle and skin from the abdomen to create a new breast. But for Pam, that solution would be impossible. “I couldn’t do it,” she said. “With my MS I had a hard enough time standing up. I couldn’t afford to lose any stomach muscles. It just wouldn’t work.”
In short, what Pam figured she needed to get back to where she wanted to be, was something just short of a miracle.
She got one.
A Second Surgery - Now at Mercy - Brings Hope
Enter Mercy Medical Center and Dr. Bernie Chang, who leads The Breast Reconstruction and Restoration Center. Together, they helped the miracle along.
With no implants at all and seemingly no options left to her, Pam had turned to a friend who had knowledge of breast cancer. The friend told her she’d heard that Dr. Chang at Mercy was “the best” at reconstructive surgery and maybe she should call him.
“Dr. Chang told me right away that the procedure that had been suggested to me was the old way of doing it,” Pam said. “He said there was a newer, better way that wouldn’t take any muscle from my stomach. “ For Pam, who had been through so much and yet still had no resolution in sight, Dr. Chang’s words were like hearing a choir of angels. “I was really pleased,” she said.
Several weeks later Dr. Chang performed DIEP flap reconstruction at Mercy Medical Center using skin and fat from the abdomen. Pam was thrilled with the result. “I hardly remember all the other issues I went through now,” she noted. “Before Dr. Chang it was like a bad dream.”
But the dream has turned out to be better than even Pam could have hoped for. Sometimes good things do come out of challenges. Because of the chemotherapy drugs Pam was taking during her battle with cancer, she was forced to stop taking the medication she’d been on to control her Multiple Sclerosis. Some chemo drugs are also used to treat MS, and in Pam's case, they seemed to work. In addition, now that she’s cancer free, Pam has begun taking a new MS drug that’s working wonders. After all she’s been through she’s now out of her wheelchair and not only walking, but regularly riding a bicycle, swimming, and doing the little things that she had been forced to stop doing before.
“My mother lives with me and she still worries,” Pam said. “She’ll say, ‘don’t do that’ when I’m trying to do things. But I always tell her that if I don’t push it a little it’s like giving up. I’m not going to do that ever.”
A Miracle Born
Pam in many ways is a miracle. And she’s certainly been touched along the way by some healing hands, and for that, she said, she will always be grateful. “Dr. Chang and his entire staff are so good at what they do,” she noted. “What I love about him is that he’s really a regular guy. He doesn’t come off like he’s special, but he is.”
And so is Pam.
“I think sometimes I’m a miracle, or at least that some miraculous things have happened with me,” she noted. “I thank God every single day for the way things have worked out.”
“Right now I can pretty much walk anywhere. Although I still have other bothersome MS symptoms,” she said. “But I’ve come a really long way.”
Pam's Treatment Team