An End to Breast Cancer
To Save Lives through Breast Cancer Research
The Breast Cancer Society of Canada is a national organization with family roots. It was established in 1991 by Lawrence and Kay Greenaway, in memory of their daughter Pam who died of breast cancer at 38 years old. She left behind two small children and a loving husband. The Greenaway and Kohlmeier families positively transformed their deep loss into a mission to raise money to fund research to cure this devastating disease.
Today, Pam’s legacy to fund breast cancer research is saving lives. Please help realize the family’s hope for a cure by donating, volunteering or participating in one of our events.
By Lawrence Greenaway. Pam’s Father and Founder, Breast Cancer Society of Canada.
I’ll never forget the day we found out our daughter Pam had breast cancer. It was January 1988. Pam and her husband Guy were terrified. She had recently given birth to her second child, and their son was only four years old. Pam herself was only 34. How could Pam, a glowing, proud young mother, have breast cancer?
Breast cancer came as a shock to our family and not just because of Pam’s age. My wife Kay and I both had mothers and grandmothers that had enjoyed long lives. It had seemingly never affected our family. However, we did later discover that Pam’s maternal great-aunt had breast cancer. Her diagnosis had been a well-kept secret though, probably due to society’s covert rules on what a person disclosed about their medical history and also how such a disease would appear to the neighbours.
Within a week of Pam’s diagnosis with Stage II breast cancer, she underwent surgery and had her right breast removed. Naturally, such invasive surgery is devastating but overall, things looked quite good. She underwent local chemotherapy treatment and eventually was declared cancer free. However, one year later, Pam felt a twinge in her back. Further examination revealed that the cancer had returned.
This time, Pam and Guy travelled valiantly all over North America in search of an effective treatment. They tried everything. In fact, when I look back at her autopsy report, it is difficult to believe what our poor daughter endured—open breast biopsy, breast removal, removal of lymph glands (22 positive we hadn’t a clue what that meant), three high dose chemotherapy treatments, body scans, many, many x-rays, bone marrow transplants, stem cell transplants, spinal taps, two thoracentesis taps, brain hemorrhage, blindness, heart problems, sinus taps, ear taps, nasal tubes, colon biopsy, pelvic biopsy, rectal catheter, bladder catheter, lung biopsy, and ventilator, not to mention many experimental drug treatments. What’s worse is that this constant hell-on-earth was stretched out over several years.
Pam was a naturally beautiful girl. She didn’t bother much with make-up and she certainly didn’t need it. With great skin, sparkling eyes, a beautiful smile and a cute space between her teeth that she didn’t care for but which we all loved, Pam was one of the most popular girls in Sarnia. She was a very kind person and cultivated friends easily because of her warm and witty personality. She loved life and good people and was rarely angry with anyone or anything.
Pam was athletic her whole life. Her strict health consciousness made her diagnosis even more shocking. We couldn’t understand how this disease could infect someone who had never smoked, always cut the fat off meat (on the rare occasions when she ate meat), loved vegetables, worked out regularly, and at 5 ft. 9 inches, held her weight at a constant 130 pounds. Our wondering was in vain. No one could tell us what caused Pam’s breast cancer or what else she could have done to prevent it.
When we found out later that she found a lump on her left breast a few years earlier when she was just 30 years old. She requested a mammogram but her doctor told her a mammogram would not be necessary because she was too young to get breast cancer. He dismissed what she found as probably a calcified milk duct.
Pam remained actively involved in her own health throughout her treatment. She wanted to be as informed as possible. She was a very strong person before breast cancer, but she became a much stronger person as she went through her multiple therapies. Even during the most trying times such as when her doctors spent two whole hours attempting in vain to do a spinal tap, she never whimpered nor cried but remained bent over as they had asked. I would stand outside the door during some of her most horrible treatments and procedures and admire her bravery.
Our family always believed our brave Pam would be cured of breast cancer, and she would return home to carry on as a mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend. Our belief in the human spirit and in the preservation of life wouldn’t allow us to believe otherwise. Most of the time though, we were confused about the treatments, options and explanations that were offered by the medical community. It’s unbelievably difficult to have no background whatsoever in medicine or medical terminology, but to have all kinds of technical reports thrown at you. You just feel overwhelmed and helpless.
Our feelings changed every day. Some days we were down and then the next day we’d receive numbers on blood counts that looked like an improvement and we had to show optimism. I do know that despite our outward display of optimism, we were terrified of the possibility that Pam might die and of a world without her. What would happen to her children? How could her husband cope without her? How would we feel losing such a gem? How would her three sisters and five brothers deal with it? Years later, the whole family is still changing in our attempt to cope with Pam’s death.
At 7:00 on the morning of March 25, 1992, we received a telephone call from the hospital in St. Louis, Missouri where Pam was being treated. They were completely straightforward, stating that Pam was failing and that we should come quickly. They had been giving her “pressors” during the night. This medication was to maintain blood pressure through the chemical stimulation of her heart.
When we all arrived at the hospital, we were guided to a small room with very few chairs, not nearly enough for the large number of us. The head oncologist wasn’t available, so an anxious, young and obviously inexperienced doctor attempted to explain Pam’s condition to us. He was having a very difficult time telling us the bad news and we were having an equally difficult time absorbing it. Basically, we were told that Pam had suffered a heart attack, was unconscious and had much untold damage. There was no hope of a successful bone marrow transplant and she was still alive solely by the use of the pressors—taking them away would spell her demise.
There were 17 relatives and friends listening to this grim tale. After discussing the dire situation, we decided to withdraw her life support which we knew and understood would end her life on Earth. With 16 people standing in the hall outside her door, her husband went into her room and spoke his last words to her. He left the door open on purpose. Although Pam was unconscious, Guy talked to her with all his heart, saying that he and the family had tried everything possible to save her. The one-sided talk ended with him speaking in a clear but strained voice, saying “I am so sorry Pam, please forgive me.” There was not a dry eye in the hall when he finished.
The nurses were summoned, and one of Pam’s favourite nurses gave the massive morphine shot. The pressors were ceased, and within a minute her heart ceased beating and her skin grew cool. All 17 of us—Pam’s close friends and family members—were gathered around the bed when she died. Not one doctor appeared to help us through this process or to console us afterwards.
Pam’s autopsy showed that the cause of death was fulminating aspergillus and pneumonia. Her lungs were coated with a tan colour, but there was a total lack of inflammation in the area—her body was too weak to initiate a reaction to the fungus or pneumonia. We all knew that breast cancer was the true culprit.
After the autopsy, Pam was flown home. The church was packed the day we celebrated her life and mourned her loss. It soon became evident that our family, Pam’s husband and her friends had all lost much more than a daughter, sister, wife and friend. We all lost our faith in the medical establishment who had assured us with each new treatment that they could cure Pam of this breast cancer, but who had admitted each time a subsequent treatment failed that not enough research had been done into breast cancer.
While we lost our confidence for a while, we weren’t going to wallow in despair. Time and time again, as we were told by many doctors that not enough research had been done into breast cancer and that it was necessary to do this research if lives were to be saved in the future, we’d ask back, “Why doesn’t somebody do something?” One day, Kay turned to me and said, “Why don’t you do something about it?”
The Breast Cancer Society of Canada received letters patent on September 5th, 1991. Our initial grass-roots effort which started in the southwestern Ontario communities of Sarnia–Point Edward has now grown into a national organization. We are dedicated to raising money for peer-reviewed research emphasizing the detection, prevention and treatment of breast cancer as well as to ultimately find a cure. Pam knew of our plans to fund breast cancer research and thanked us.
Kay and I thank Pam back in our hearts everyday for teaching us some wonderful lessons too. Before our daughter was diagnosed, we were quite oblivious to the number of women who were being affected. Through Pam we learned so much about the plight of other women like her. I think about Pam all the time, but it was almost as devastating to find out there were thousands of more daughters besides my own with breast cancer.
We hope Pam’s story will raise awareness on behalf of all breast cancer survivors and their families. And, we hope her story will teach doctors and patients that even women in their twenties and thirties are vulnerable to breast cancer and they must take any breast abnormality seriously.
Finally, Pam taught us to make the most of the time we have with our family and friends. Life can be very short as it was with hers. While Kay and I and all of our family always miss Pam, we are comforted in our mission to help others by raising money for peer-reviewed research to improve the detection, treatment and prevention of breast cancer and to one day to find a cure. We hope those of you who have also been touched will also take comfort in joining our cause.