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Hodgkin's Lymphoma Survivor
Pamela Clark, Portland, Oregon
In March 2004, Pamela Clark, a 34-year-old Portland, Oregon-based aspiring professional surfer, had a stem cell transplant to treat Hodgkin’s disease. Just 55 days later, she was back in the water surfing. Within a little more than a year after her transplant, Clark was cancer-free and busy surfing competitively, promoting surfing for women, and fund-raising for a number of organizations, including the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She also works part-time as a researcher in the substance abuse treatment field.
Clark first took to the water on a surfboard during a vacation in Hawaii with her husband Rod, whom she met at age 14 and married the day after their high school graduation.
“The second I picked up the board,” Clark says, “I knew I was going to do it for the rest of my life.”
Just one month later, in August of 2002, Clark was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer that affects the lymph nodes and immune system.
From the desert to the ocean
Clark was born and raised in California, but not in a surfing town. She graduated from high school in 29 Palms, a small town in the desert about an hour northeast of Palm Springs. It’s the home of the world’s largest Marine base, the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.
Clark has a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a master’s degree in criminal justice from Temple University in Philadelphia. She is now the chief drug and alcohol research analyst for the state of Oregon.
Shortly after her 2002 Hawaii vacation, Clark went to see her doctor because she felt tired and had a persistent cough. She was diagnosed with Stage III Hodgkin’s disease, which means that the disease had already spread to lymph nodes on both sides of the diaphragm.
Initially, Clark’s Portland oncologist, Dr. Stacy Lewis, treated her with a combination of chemotherapy drugs called ABVD for six months.
Hodgkin’s disease is considered a highly treatable cancer, and this chemotherapy regimen results in a complete response rate of around 80 percent, according to Dr. Leona Holmberg, who treated Clark at SCCA.
When Clark was nauseous during her chemotherapy treatments, she says, she would often close her eyes and imagine she was riding the waves on her surfboard. “That seemed to help,” she says.
Unfortunately, Clark’s cancer returned in December 2003, and she was told a bone marrow or stem cell transplant was her best option. She researched cancer centers through the Bone & Marrow Transplant Information Network and decided to come to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The reason, she says, was Hutchinson Center's reputation for pioneering bone marrow transplants and for doing more transplants than any other cancer center in the country. “I found that the Hutch has done the most transplants,” Clark says. “That was one reason I chose to come here.”
Clark met with Dr. Ajay Gopal to discuss a transplant. “He said I had a 50 percent chance of being disease-free five years after the transplant,” she says. “He was honest, and I liked that about him.”
She began treatment in January 2004 with two cycles of chemotherapy, three weeks apart. She was able to do the chemotherapy in Portland with her local doctor.
Then she came back to Seattle to begin the transplant process, under the care of Dr. Holmberg. The procedure included the harvest of her stem cells, four days of total body irradiation, and two more days of chemotherapy. “The seventh day is a rest day,” Clark says with a laugh.
On the eighth day she got her stem cells back by infusion, in a simple procedure that is much like a blood transfusion.
She was hospitalized for a total of only 14 days, which Dr. Holmberg says is “about typical” for the type of transplant she had.
Clark then stayed at the Pete Gross House until day 22 post-transplant, with her sister-in-law Lee Rupp as her caregiver. “The SCCA gave me the all-clear at about 1 p.m., and we were already packed and back home in Portland that evening,” Clark says.
Just a little over a month later, on day 55 post-transplant, she went surfing.
Her transplant went exceptionally well, Clark notes. “I had no problems, no infections,” she says.
Clark was also fortunate that her health insurance, through her husband’s employer, the CPA firm KPMG, paid the full cost of her transplant. Most people who need a transplant are not so lucky—few insurance policies cover the total cost.
KPMG was “just great,” to her husband and to her, Clark says. “They promoted him, even though he took off a lot of time during my treatment,” she says. “And they’ve donated money to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.”
Amuse me, please
One of the hardest things about having her cancer return was telling friends and family that she had relapsed, Clark says. “You feel like you’ve let them down,” she says. Her solution was to come up with what she called “The Amuse Me Competition.”
“I sent out an e-mail that said, I’m sorry to tell you that I have relapsed. I’m calling on my friends and family to amuse me (while I’m going through the stem cell transplant).” Then she listed the things her friends and family could not send her while she was hospitalized, which included plants and animals, and she asked for no visitors and no phone calls.
Clark says her circle of friends and family responded with a total of about 60 gifts to keep her amused while she was hospitalized and later recovering at the Pete Gross House. These included jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, and DVDs.
Her sister-in-law, Lee Rupp, sent out a daily e-mail to keep everyone up to date on how Clark was doing.
Keeping busy, doing good
Since her transplant, Clark has thrown herself into a number of volunteer and fund-raising activities. She joined a Young Survivor’s Group for people who were diagnosed with cancer at age 35 or younger. The group is run by the Portland Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Cancer Care Resources.
“I pack a lot in,” Clark says. “It’s hard to say no. Partly it’s survivor guilt, and also I don’t know how much time I have left.”
She helped organize the 4th Annual Clean Water Classic surfing competition in Westport, Washington, on May 14-15, 2005. She also raised money for the Oregon Man & Woman of the Year contest, a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society that brought in $165,000 in six weeks. “Cancer survivors are the best fund-raisers,” she says.
Back on the board
Clark typically surfs two or three times a week now, usually in the chilly waters off the Oregon Coast that require a wetsuit year around. Her favorite surfing spots are Short Sands and Indian Beach, both near Cannon Beach. She will compete in three or four surfing competitions this year. And she’s started writing for surfing magazines.
Clark’s compelling story has attracted media attention. She was featured in the spring 2005 issue of Surf Life for Women and in the March 2005 issue of Cure magazine. Her story will also be told in a surfing documentary scheduled for release in late 2005, “A Surfer’s Journey.”
This active life is Clark’s message to other people diagnosed with Hodgkin’s: “You can have a healthy, normal life with a high level of physical activity,” she says. “You can come out the other side OK.”