At age 38, Pamela Goodfellow’s world came crashing down.
And it came at the unlikeliest of times.
“I was in great shape, going to the gym at least twice a week,” Goodfellow said. “But I knew in my heart of hearts that I needed to see a doctor.”
In November 2015, she started to get an odd sensation in her chest, as if a cell phone were vibrating against her body. Her primary physician found a lump in her breast and sent her for a mammogram.
“I went into Betty Ford Breast Care Services and they did a mammogram and then an ultrasound,” Goodfellow said.
The mammogram came up negative, but an ultrasound located two lumps.
Her doctors said that could sometimes happen with dense breast tissue.
Then they ordered an MRI, which unmasked the cancer lurking in both breasts—11 lumps in total.
“The next two weeks were a whirlwind,” Goodfellow recalled. “I had biopsies done on all the lumps and two of them came up malignant. One of the technicians said to me, ‘Your life is going to change.’”
Not only did Goodfellow’s life change, but it suddenly seemed to have an expiration date.
Along with the two malignant lumps, the cancer—invasive ductal carcinoma—had spread to 19 lymph nodes and other tissue.
Doctors told her she had perhaps a year to eighteen months to live.
A fight for life
Goodfellow, a fighter in her own right, didn’t take the prognosis lying down. As the mother of two teenage boys, she wasn’t about to let her children down.
“When I got the prognosis I went home and made a decision that day that I would be open and honest with my boys,” she said. “I sat them down and explained what was happening and told them I would explain every step along the way.
“They were 14 and 17 at the time,” she said. “I put a cancer book on the kitchen table for easy access and I was calm throughout our talk. My youngest said, ‘We’ll beat this.’ My oldest said, ‘Just don’t die, Mom.’”
So began the fight of her life.
Amid the stresses that accompany such a prognosis, Goodfellow also found herself divorced. A single mom. It only strengthened her resolve. Her best friend, Kelly Proctor, stepped up as her first support, taking her to all her appointments and sitting by her through all her treatments.
“When someone from the medical team sat me down to discuss a plan of care, I shook my head,” she said. “I said, ‘I will tell you my plan of care. Double mastectomy. No reconstruction.’ Because I knew by then that would only make any future lumps harder to find.”
Doctors removed some of her lymph nodes and she underwent aggressive chemotherapy for six weeks, followed by regular chemotherapy.
She struggled with nausea. She lost her hair.
“My attitude was always that I was going to get through this,” Goodfellow said. “Really, this wasn’t such a bad thing, what happened to me. I learned to have gratitude for the small things in life. I learned to slow down. I learned that I can handle whatever life gives me.”
A new struggle
Two years had passed. Goodfellow will never forget the date: Aug. 8, 2016. That’s when doctors considered her cancer-free.
Just four months later, she took another blow.
“It turned out my journey was just beginning,” she said. “My fingers, my hands had begun to swell.”
Goodfellow’s doctor referred her to the lymphedema clinic at the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, where she met Amy Colthorp, OTS, CML DT, an occupational therapist who quickly proved critical in her ongoing journey.
Colthorp, who works in the Lymphedema Treatment Program, understood Goodfellow’s struggle at a personal level.
“I’m a two-time breast cancer survivor,” Colthorp said. “I also have lymphedema.”
Goodfellow felt that empathetic connection right away.
“It helped a lot that Amy really understood what I was going through,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about lymphedema going into this.”
When lymph nodes are removed during breast cancer surgery, it sometimes results in a compromised lymphatic system, Colthorp said.
The lymphatic system collects excess fluids of proteins, lipids and waste products from tissues throughout the body. When it stops working in any part of the body, it leads to fluid retention.
“Lymphedema doesn’t get a lot of love in the medical field,” Colthorp said. “Yet it’s a chronic, lifelong condition. Once you have it, there is no magic cure. To be told that is really emotional.
“But you can do everything with lymphedema,” Colthorp said. “You just have to learn how to manage it.”
Managing it, Goodfellow learned, involved wearing daytime compression that includes a sleeve and a glove, nighttime compression, and the use of a special pump for more than an hour a day to aid her lymphatic system.
“I didn’t know anything about lymphedema when this started,” Goodfellow said. “But I found out—and this was harder than it was to handle cancer. I found out it can start at any point after the kind of surgery I had.”
Colthorp taught Goodfellow about the 500-some lymph nodes in her body—not just the dynamics and processes, but how to live with it all.
“The lymphatic system cleans out the garbage in our bodies and brings back collected proteins to the heart,” Colthorp said. “Lymphedema can be hard to live with because it affects every part of life.”
Goodfellow had a network of support. Along with her therapist and her sons, she had work colleagues cheering her on every step of the way.
“I never had to worry about my job,” she said. “I manage four offices. My boss, the regional vice president of People Link Staffing Solutions, let me have the time I needed to undergo treatment.”
Her workplace held a fundraiser that has since become an annual event, with all funds earmarked for lymphedema patients through Spectrum Health Foundation.
“I found out the compression sleeves lymphedema patients need cost a lot of money,” Goodfellow said. “They need to be replaced every 6 months.”
In 2017, Goodfellow’s coworkers raised a combined $1,700, with her employer matching any funds raised. They repeated that achievement in 2018 and they hope to raise the bar each year.
For those with lymphedema, the assistance is often much-needed.
“If you don’t wear the compression sleeves and gloves, your lymphedema will progress,” Colthorp said. “Cancer survivorship is hard enough as it is, but we want people to know there are resources out there to help you.”
The prognosis for Goodfellow, now 41, is good.
She remains cancer-free and her lymphedema is under control.
And she appreciates life as never before.
“I’m doing whatever I can to minimize my risk for the future,” she said. “But I won’t let myself worry. No point in worrying about tomorrow. Just take it one day at a time and pay it forward to others like me. And never forget to do a self-exam.”