Triathlete’s courageous battle with stage 4 breast cancer shares message to others

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(WJW) October is breast cancer awareness month and that awareness is about more than noticing all the pink. It’s about being in tune with your body, being aware of tiny changes in your health, because that bit of awareness could change your life.

It did for Pam Benchley, a fitness junky who is the very definition of hardcore. For 30 years, this wife and step-mother has devoted her life to fitness; an instructor, a college professor. And that’s just what she does for work. The 53-year-old is also a triathlete, twice competing in one of the toughest of all, Ironman.

Pam recalls the day she decided to do it, thinking, “Maybe I should do one. I’ve got the equipment, the bikes. I’ve got the knees, I’ve got the ambition and the drive, so yeah, I ended up doing two full Irons after having done multiple half ones.” She laughs, “It’s fun. Uh, sort of fun.”

Last year while training, Pam noticed a rough spot, which looked like a rash on her left breast. She thought, “My sports bra must have been chafing me in a weird spot.” At a regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment, her physician wanted a closer look.”I could’ve very easily let it go. I’m glad that I didn’t because who knows where I would’ve ended up.”

Mammograms showed nothing. Biopsies later revealed the diagnosis. She had stage 4 breast cancer. It was in her liver. 

In search of a second opinion, Pam, who lives in Dunkirk, New York, came to the Cleveland Clinic and into the care of Dr. Halle Moore, director of Breast Medical Oncology at Taussig Cancer Center. She says, “Changes in the skin are a less common symptom of breast cancer but certainly can be a way for breast cancer to show up.’

After a couple of surgeries to remove cancer in her breast and liver, Pam was back to biking and running two weeks later. This is a woman who refuses to waste her energy, no matter what the circumstance. Her attitude is, “I never wanted anybody to say, oh, I’m so sorry.” The word pity is not in her vocabulary. She continues, “I want high fives and fist bumps and more research and better drugs.”

The advances that have been made are what’s keeping Pam’s cancer at bay; a couple of pills that a few years ago were not a treatment option. Dr. Moore explains, “She has cancer that was very amenable to some of our newer treatment options.”

There is no cure for stage 4 breast cancer. It’s something Pam will live with for the rest of her life. But she will not let it consume her. She smiles, “I have this great big hug tremendously fun, fantastic life and cancer are a little tiny part of it. It doesn’t define who I am.”

A life well lived for Pam Benchley is full of what it always has been, travel and fitness, rising to the challenge in spite of a few aches and pains. Her focus at all times, the road ahead.

“I always liken it to riding a bike. If you look backward…I should’ve done this, what did I do wrong? You know if you turn your head and look backward you’re going to crash. If you look sideways…I’ve lived great, this person hardly exercises or they smoke. I’ve lived what I thought was very healthy. Why did it happen to me? If you turn your head sideways you’ll crash. I mean, there really is only one direction and that’s just looking forward.”

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