Leading the Way

Cancer survivor preaches the gospel of self-exams

For Pam Tyson, one of the hardest parts of being diagnosed with breast cancer was telling her family.

Pam was 45 years old when she felt a lump in her breast during a regular self-exam. It wasn’t the first time: A dozen years earlier, she’d also felt a lump, but a biopsy came back clear. She continued to do periodic self-exams and assumed this lump would also be benign.

But this time, a mammogram followed by a needle biopsy showed cancer.

“How do I tell my children?” was practically her first thought. The single mom of three children was also the caregiver for her mother.

“We’re very close — it’s hard to get anything past them,” she says. “But as a single mom, I’m not allowed to panic. If I’m OK, my children will be OK. So I told them, ‘We’re informed, we know how we’re going to tackle this, and I’m going to be OK.’”

Three years later, Pam’s cancer journey continues. She still struggles with pain from her surgery, radiation and medications. But she says she feels like she’s on the road to recovery — although there’s a lot of stress in not knowing for sure.

“Until I get the ‘all clear’ I won’t feel like I’m good,” Pam says. “My life isn’t necessarily in my hands to do what I want to do. But I can’t let a bump in my road stop me. I’ve got to keep going.”

She also keeps counseling family, friends, church members and her co-workers at the Department of Emergency Management in San Francisco about the importance of those self-exams. She keeps a pad of Colonial Life sticky notes with a reminder about self-exams on her desk as a constant reminder. The company is a major provider of cancer and critical illness insurance at the workplace and previously distributed the notepads to promote being proactive with cancer prevention. After her experience, she even contacted the company to request more notepads to hand out.

“A pastoral friend encouraged me to use my testimony to help others,” Pam says. “When I talk about my experience, it’s not just about my diagnosis and treatment — it’s about awareness. I believe in being informed.

“You have to know and examine your own body. It’s on you to take care of you.”

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