Standing on the stage at Augusta Common, Pam Anderson looked out on a sea of pink-clad people gathered for the Miracle Mile Breast Cancer Walk. She thought back to the first event, 13 years before, when it was just her and a few dozen people trying to raise breast cancer awareness and money to fund mammograms.
“I’d like to say your presence here brings us hope and reminds us that our work is not done in bringing awareness about breast cancer,” she said.
Since Anderson helped found the Breast Health Center at University Hospital in 2000, surgeon Randy Cooper said, she has been the first person breast cancer patients see after diagnosis. She is the first to calm their fears, to talk them patiently through their options and answer their questions, to dab away their tears and add her own. And she stays with them throughout treatment and well beyond.
It is almost impossible to imagine treatment at the hospital without seeing her there, but that will soon happen as she heads toward retirement.
“What she brought to everyday life in that breast center is a passion for you,” Cooper told the Miracle Mile crowd Oct. 20.
It is evident in the Pink Magnolias breast cancer survivor group at the Breast Health Center. More than 30 women and notably one man are crowded onto couches that line a room at the center. Anderson walks over and presents breast cancer survivor Cecil Herrin with a “Real Men Wear Pink” shirt, to loud cheers from the other survivors.
Each person tells a story of diagnosis and treatment, and Anderson nods because many of the details are still familiar.
“She was diagnosed on our Mobile Mammography van,” Anderson says as one woman recounted her diagnosis in 2004.
As another recounts her struggles being treated in 2003, Anderson sympathizes and says, “I just remember how sick you were at diagnosis.”
It is her own story also. Already a nurse, Anderson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 and had six months of chemotherapy.
A few years later, “I came to University and found what I wanted to do, which was to support women who had gone through what I had gone through,” she said.
The group provides support but also celebrates breast cancer survivors. Helen Mitchell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1956.
“Back then they didn’t have no chemo, no radiation,” Mitchell said. “They gave me a 50/50 chance to make it, but God didn’t.”
The room erupts in cheers.
“I just turned 88 years old, and I feel good,” Mitchell said. “I’m still here, and I still have joy.”
It’s a story Anderson has heard many times, and it never gets old.
“It still gives me chills,” she said.
The group has several first-timers and the rawness is evident in them. Valerie Huff was diagnosed in June, and that is about all she can get out before she dissolves in tears and buries her face in her hands. Fortunately for her, she is sitting next to Mitchell, who puts her arm around her and pulls her in.
“You’re going to be fine,” Mitchell tells her with utter conviction. “Just like he took care of me, he’s going to take care of you. You might give out, honey, but don’t give up.”
And Anderson is right there, too.
“The best people to be around are the people who have walked in your shoes,” she said.
And for many of them that is Anderson.
“I’m going to miss you,” Donna Charles told her. “I just want to put that out there.”
Lillian McKie recalled how her diagnosis so upset her that she couldn’t eat for days, until she finally talked with Anderson, who calmed her down.
“That’s my Angel No. 1,” she said.
Jennifer Waldrop was told to bring her whole family down to talk to Anderson after her diagnosis. Even her son’s girlfriend showed up.
“You did,” Anderson said, laughing. “I remember that.”
“She just made me feel at ease,” Waldrop said.
There is a lot of talk about spiritual things – Anderson tells a woman who is struggling, “We’re here to support you and you will be in everybody’s prayers” – and there is a lot of laughter.
Herrin teases her that she ambushed him after surgery to convince him to be in a calendar of survivors she was putting together.
“I did say, ‘I need a man,’ ” Anderson said to shrieks of laughter. “I just wish you hadn’t told my husband that.”
In the midst of the group is Anderson’s successor, Andrea Freeman, an experienced oncology nurse.
“I see a lot of familiar faces,” she said as she looked around the room.
At the Miracle Mile Walk, Anderson called Freeman up on stage to introduce her to the crowd.
“I’m going to pass the torch to a wonderful, wonderful compassionate good friend, good nurse,” Anderson said. “We are in training. I’m going to train her well, but she’s got it. And she’s going to continue in this fight that we started 13 years ago.”
Cooper wanted Anderson to come up on the stage so the crowd could thank her.
“All I can say right now is I am speechless as I look at this crowd,” she said. “And I thank you all for the opportunity and the privilege to serve this community and to do everything I can to help in the fight against breast cancer.”
Still, it doesn’t feel like a farewell. Just behind the stage, Jennifer Hughes stops Anderson so she can get a photo with her. Anderson admires her hair, which is already growing back. Diagnosed in February, she just finished radiation therapy. Hughes begins to talk about Anderson and what she meant to her. It doesn’t sound like she is talking about a nurse or an advocate or even a friend. Anderson was more.
“Almost like a sister,” Hughes said. “I’ll never forget her.”