By Bailey Cummings
Published October 8, 2019
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, a month to celebrate survivors, remember those we’ve lost, and educate the public on the disease. Pam Cunningham, an Albany native, is a Stage II breast cancer survivor.
Cunningham was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ on October 8, 2013. Today she is five years cancer-free.
When she was first diagnosed, Cunningham was shocked.
“One doctor told me that it wouldn’t be chemo, so I already had that in the back of my mind,” she says, “We’re okay to just do maybe radiation or something like that.”
This first consultation gave her hope. After speaking with an oncologist, though, some of that hope was strained.
“When I went to go see the oncologist, she said, ‘Well, we’ll start chemo as soon as we can,’” she says. “I didn’t hear anything after that. Because it was like chemo, chemo, chemo, why chemo?”
Cunningham’s treatment experience was a little different than the typical. The order in which she went through the forms of treatment was unique.
“Most people have the surgery, do the chemo, do radiation,” she says. “Mine was different. They were doing the chemo first.”
After going through chemotherapy, she underwent a mastectomy. A mastectomy is a medical procedure in which all breast tissue is removed to treat or prevent breast cancer.
“Once I made that decision and went through the chemo, I knew I didn’t want to go through chemo again,” Cunningham says. “That’s when I said, ‘Take ‘em off! I’m done and don’t want to have to go through this again.’”
While going through chemotherapy, Cunningham continued to love her active lifestyle, working, coaching basketball, and spending time with family and friends.
“I just kept going,” she says. “The doctor that I went to and I’m glad I stayed with, she let me work as much as I wanted to and could.”
Cunningham, an employee at Capital Care Pediatrics in Guilderland, says her co-workers and doctors were very understanding and helpful when it came to her continuing to work.
“I said to my doctors, ‘I’ll go and work,’ and they said to me, ‘If you don’t feel good, go home.’ They were great.”
Along with working her desk job, she continued coaching two basketball teams.
“I could still coach, so you know, I think getting up and doing things I normally do, helped me keep going,” she says.
Parents of her athletes as well as the athletes themselves made coaching much easier for her at the time.
“If anybody was sick on the [basketball] team, moms always reached out and told me,” Cunningham says. “I did have a mask once in a while or kids would say, ‘Hey coach, I’ve got a sore throat, I’m going to stay over here, you stay over there.’”
She coached a team through St. Gabriel’s Church in Rotterdam along with a CDYBL (Capital District Youth Basketball League) team.
Staying on her toes with her athletes and day job, Cunningham’s focus was taken away from her medical diagnosis and treatment and was allocated to other areas of her life, areas that truly defined her.
Throughout her breast cancer experience, she also learned about the great work and support cancer doctors offer.
“The one great thing I found, too, when I went to the oncologist and had to start the chemo and stuff, is that they’re wonderful people,” she gushes. “Oh my gosh, they’re like your best friend. They know what to say, what to do. It was amazing. It really was.”
Since being five years cancer free, Cunningham doesn’t have as many additional appointments or testing as she did in previous years.
“I have to go every six months to see the oncologist,” she says. “I have blood work done at that time. She checks everything, makes sure theres no new lumps or anything like that, because it’s still my tissue obviously. I think I have to go for like a bone scan every couple of years.”
Cunningham has something recent to celebrate:
“Actually I just graduated; I don’t have to see the surgeon anymore because it’s been five years. Unless I have a problem. So that was nice and I don’t have to see her anymore.”
While going through chemo, she lost her hair and was given a wig to wear.
“I had to wear a fricken wig all the time,” she says with a chuckle. “After a while, you just want to get it off your head because it drives you crazy.”
When asked if she still has her wig, Cunningham responds with a quick “no.”
“I threw that out as soon as I possibly could!” she exclaims with a trail of laughter.
“It’s the little things that make you feel better.”
The American Cancer Society estimates that this year, there will be 271,270 new breast cancer cases between both men and women. They also estimate that there will be 17,490 new female breast cancer cases in New York State during 2019. With those predictions, Cunningham feels strongly about the “awareness” in the name “Breast Cancer Awareness month”.
“I tell people, ‘Have your exams.’ Self exams and mammograms,” she says. “It’s not a death sentence. Especially if it’s early detected.”
This month is the month to recognize breast cancer and the lives it has impacted. Pam Cunningham is one of them, and her story is one that is all too common. But, she kicked cancer’s butt and now, she has a new favorite color in her wardrobe.
“I love wearing pink,” Cunningham says with a smile. “I’ll wear it all month.”