Woman fights breast cancer diagnosis while husband is treated for leukemia

January 11, 2024

Pamela told FOX43 that she hadn’t received a screening for breast cancer since the pandemic and felt the need to get checked out when she felt a lump in her breast. She also says a little voice kept telling her to go get screened despite the fact her husband Thomas was in the middle of his treatment for leukemia.

“I put all that aside and said yeah, I still have to go to the mammogram,” said Pamela.

Pamela received her last screening at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. She was told that she had triple negative breast cancer. Triple negative breast cancer is rare and makes up around 20% of all breast cancers.

“Traditional targeted medications, like the hormone blocker pills or other medicines, do not necessarily work with triple negative breast cancer,” said Dr. Kit Lu, MD, Breast Oncology Specialist at UPMC.

“I thought breast cancer was breast cancer, right… you don’t know what you don’t know and that was me… I just thought breast cancers were all the same,” said Pamela.

Pamela’s kids, Emily and Samuel Prowell, struggled with knowing both their parents had cancer and both would have to go through several treatments before they got well.

“It was almost like a mental block on I… just had to like focus on the one thing subconsciously," said Samuel.

Dr. Lu, along with Dr. KimberLee Mudge and registered nurse Chrissy Frederick, was one of the many doctors, nurses and staff in Pamela’s case who also knew that her husband was battling leukemia. As soon as Pamela was diagnosed, a plan to effectively treat the rare triple negative breast cancer diagnosis was formed.

“So she required five months of chemotherapy and immunotherapy before her surgery and after surgery, she required about six to eight weeks of radiation and about six months of immunotherapy,” said Dr. Lu.

In that duration of time, Thomas continued to undergo treatment as well. Due to the strain the treatment took on Pamela’s body, she was not able to take Thomas to his appointments, nor was he able to attend hers. They relied on family and neighbors who showed kindness by driving them.

“Because I had already had surgery and because I was going to radiation every day, I had to be very careful with comfortability as I was sleeping, so it was hard to sleep on the tiny pull-out sofa in his room,” said Pamela.

“There were days when I would be sitting in just in tears, thinking how in the world can both of us have cancer and we’re both trying to fight this battle right now. He would look at me and he would go, ‘what are you crying for? We’re going to be fine.’”

Before disclosing her diagnosis to her family, Pamela thought of her childcare kids and the families that would see the changes in her appearance while she underwent treatment. She educated her toddlers and kids on what she may look like by reading them “Nowhere Hair” by Edith Buenen.

“Because I’m a child care director, I needed to tell my families in my program because I can’t even change my earrings without my kiddos in my center saying ‘Mrs. Pamela, you changed your earrings,'” said Pamela.

The kids enjoyed the book and dressed up in different wigs, scarves and hats--while also asking Pamela to teach them more about what cancer is.

“They asked hard questions like 'are you gonna die? Will you have your eyebrows anymore?'” said Pamela.

Throughout Pamela’s journey, she continued to work and be a wife, mother and friend to many. Thomas continued to support her from afar as he underwent treatment. Pamela received her last chemotherapy in October of 2022. In November of 2022, she was told she was cancer-free.

“The follow-up is now my next battle is continually making sure that I know what is going on inside my body so that if it decides to move or go somewhere else or come back later, I’m prepared for that,” said Pamela.

There was a silver lining of hope for Thomas, though, when Samuel, his son, became a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant. Bone marrow helps replenish healthy new blood cells in patients who lack them.

“It was conflicting because I know I gave him the best chance with the bone marrow, but at the same time, I made him so sick and put him in so much more pain,” said Samuel.

Unfortunately, the transplant did not work, and Thomas died in January 2023. The death of a father, husband and friend took a toll on the community but was especially hard for his son, Samuel.

“Feeling like he was going to save the day for his dad and then that didn’t happen, so all those feelings and emotions as a mom in the moment I wasn’t even thinking about and those feelings for him,” said Pamela.

In Thomas' memory, a tree with heart-shaped leaves was planted in the backyard of their home where he spent most of his time planting vegetables and spending time with kids from the neighborhood who would also play in his garden.

“I wanted to do something to honor him in a space that he always enjoyed sitting in, which is our backyard, and so I thought you know ‘I wanna plant a tree,’” said Pamela.

With life having to go on without her husband, Pamela faced a new problem. Due to the amount of treatment and time both Thomas and Pamela spent in the hospital, the medical expenses had accrued. The UPMC Pinnacle Foundation was able to relieve some of the financial burden Pamela was facing after a loss of insurance due to her husband’s passing.

“Listening to her situation, we wanted to accommodate as much as we could for her so that she can not only take care of her cancer, but also be there for her family,” said Dr. Lu.

“By lifting that burden, and knowing that I wasn’t going to continually have bills rolling in… was amazing,” said Pamela.

Pamela tells FOX43 News that she was able to tell her story because she underwent screenings, mammograms and ultrasounds to detect her breast cancer early. She credits God, the UPMC staff, her family, friends and neighbors for also stepping in to help when needed.

“Everybody has a journey,” said Pamela. “Some journeys are awful, some journeys are just hard, some journeys are the fault of that person--regardless, we don’t know what anyone’s journey is at all, but to be kind--it doesn’t take any effort.”

“I really admire Pam sharing her story, and I think that my hope is this will inspire patients and other women to come forward to get screened and to face all the strength and adversity that could come in with breast cancer,” said Dr Lu.

“By lifting that burden, and knowing that I wasn’t going to continually have bills rolling in… was amazing”

— Pamela Prowell, Grateful Patient

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