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Cancer is educational, spiritual path for Pam Roe

Pam Roe and her family are active members at United Lutheran Church. She said the congregation's prayers and support were incredible along her breast cancer treatment journey this year. Samantha Bengs / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
The Roe family celebrated Pam's last day of treatment in Rochester on Sept. 18. From left, Greg, Adam, Pam, Emma and Allison. Photo courtesy of Pam Roe. 2 / 2

One year ago, Pam Roe was in the throngs of campaigning. Four seats on the Red Wing School Board were open, and Roe was one of seven candidates on the ballot.

"We had a tremendous amount of fun with it," Roe said of her first campaign experience with husband Greg and children Emma, Allison and Adam.

A career school social worker in several Minnesota districts and current social worker/bereavement and volunteer coordinator at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing Hospice, Roe said she felt a calling to run.

"I firmly believe that a community is only as strong as its schools. Given my background, working in schools for years, I really felt that I could make a positive impact for our students," Roe said. "Campaigning challenged me personally in ways that I've never been challenged. It is not really me to put myself out there in debates or to see my name on a sign in people's yard."

A little out of her comfort zone, Roe persisted. In the first contested board election since 2010, Roe joined three incumbent board members as the winners.

"I was on the highest of highs," she recalled.

Roe said she felt great pride in winning, knowing that voters placed their trust in her.

"I felt that everything was really coming together for me when I found a lump," she said.

Just five days before Christmas, Roe found a lump in her breast.

"I went from this high high to a devastating low. It sucked the breath right out of me," she said.

Waiting for test results over Christmas was immensely hard for Roe and her family.

"Being the social worker that I am, I could read my doctor's face right away. I knew," she said.

Roe's cancer diagnosis came on the eve of ringing in 2017.

"We started the new year full of questions and fear," Roe said.

Diagnosis aftershock

On Jan. 3, 2017, Roe recited the Red Wing School District's oath of office and was officially installed as a board member. Meanwhile, doctors developed a treatment plan for Roe's invasive lobular carcinoma diagnosis.

"You can choose to sit in the darkness and wallow in that pity or you can choose to pick up and continue on," Roe said. "It was never a choice which avenue I was going to take in that decision. I was never going to stay in that dark place too long. I did allow myself some time to say this sucks, woe is me. But after a few minutes, hours sometimes a few days, you take a deep breath and keep moving forward."

Roe said as the reality of her diagnosis set in, she set several priorities — making sure her family was taken care of, having enough energy to make it to Emma's, Allison's and Adam's activities and not giving up any of her commitments of serving the community.

During her treatment, Roe missed only one board meeting in the midst of intense budget and referendum discussions. The vote comes Tuesday, Nov. 7.

"Without the incredible support I had, it would have been much more difficult to find that resiliency," Roe said. "It was important for me to maintain and do things that fed my soul."

In the first three weeks of January, Roe attended several Minnesota School Board Association orientations and trainings all while fielding phone calls with mounting bad news regarding her diagnosis.

Trials and research

Training in social work helped, Roe said.

"I could see and know what was happening, but living it and experiencing it are two completely different things," she said.

Through her professional lens, Row said she could see her family was learning as they were going and grieving in their own ways.

"I knew we'd all get to a new normal," she said.

As Roe's nine-month treatment plan developed, she set another goal for herself.

"I wanted to be a part of any research now that can benefit women in the future," she said.

She agreed to partake in any trials that doctors suggested.

"I have benefitted so much from the women who have gone before me," Roe said. "Thinking about how far breast cancer treatment has come in 20 years, it’s because of those warriors. When I think about my daughters, there is no questions in my mind about trials and research."

Roe's treatment did not include standard radiation. She participated in a proton beam therapy, which she said is becoming more accepted in the Mayo Clinic system.

The proton beam is much more targeted, instead of a whole ray of beams in traditional radiation.

"They were able to map out exactly where the radiation was needed. The lungs and heart see much less damage with proton beam therapy," Roe said.

Roe will be followed very closely for five years by doctors. Her proton beam therapy journey will be compared to other women treated in similar methods.

Finding the color

According to statistics from the National Breast Cancer Foundation, 1 in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Over 3.3 million breast cancer survivors are alive in the United States today.

"Now that I've come as far as I have, I do see the blessings from this journey," Roe said. "I want to give back. I want to be one of those 3.3 million women who has a lot yet to offer."

Roe said when she completed treatment on Sept. 18, she was seeking a stamp or mark of approval from her doctors.

"My doctor told me I don't get that clean bill of health," Roe said. "You're told, "You are clear now and we hope it doesn't come back.'"

Roe wanted an answer that was black and white, instead receiving a gray forecast.

"How do you move forward knowing that it's gray?," she said. "It's a choice. Do you want to live in that gray or do you want to find the color?"

People who know Roe, know she is a color girl.

"I'm going to search for the joy, sunshine and color every day in a world that's not so black and white."

"You can only go through this type of journey with the strength of people supporting you. I would not have fared as well without the support of my family, colleagues, fellow School Board members, neighbors, book club, complete strangers — everyone."

Has cancer changed Pam Roe?

"I don't think it has," she said. "It just intensifies who we already are. Cancer makes the highs higher and lows lower. I've never wanted it to rob me of who I am or who I want to be."