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Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Stage IV survivor completes Ironman after diagnosis

Pam Benchley, 53, has stage four breast cancer. She's also dealing with a heart issue. But neither stopped her from competing in a 70.3-mile race.

CLEVELAND — October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month; about one in eight women will develop the disease in their lifetime.

Awareness is key, and so is knowing your resources, support groups, and trying to maintain a positive attitude through treatment. 

No one knows this more than 53-year-old Dunkirk, New York, native Pam Benchley. She's a longtime endurance athlete, an indoor cycling teacher, and a trainer of more than 20 years. She's also a stage IV breast cancer survivor.

In March of 2019, Pam got the news right in the middle of training for an Ironman in North Carolina: 70.3 miles of swimming, running, and biking. She had cancer in her breast and liver, but that wasn't all. 

"The heart thing was really a shocker," Pam told 3News.

While being scanned, doctors found two aortic aneurysms. Benchley was worried for her life, and wondered if she'd ever compete again.

"They said, 'Well, you can't do this certain type of exercise, heavy weights, or, you know, change your heart rate in real big spikes or drops,'" she remembered. "So I was like, '"That's kind of like my whole life.'"

Benchley traveled to the Cleveland Clinic for a second opinion. That decision, she says, changed her life.

"According to all the scans they've done, it's not anywhere near what they had originally thought the diagnosis was coming from another facility," she said.

No open-heart surgery, just the open roads--ready for Pam.

"Matter of fact, they said, 'Yeah, do it. It's all good,'" she recalled of getting cleared for training again.

So on oral chemotherapy medicine, Benchley finished her Ironman, just seven months after her diagnosis. Her oncologist is blown away.

"Pam is amazing," Dr. Halle Moore, director of breast medical oncology for Cleveland Clinic, said. "What I find really inspirational is the ability of people like Pam to reset goals. Maybe she's not going to be as fast as she has been in the past, and maybe there's going to be other challenges that she's going to face on the course, but that's not going to prevent her from competing and participating." 

Pam says if she stays in the worry, she can't move on.

"You have bad training days where it rains or you get a flat or whatever, but you don't just throw the bicycle in the trash," she explained. "You fix it and move on from those moments of weaknesses. They're just moments. That's it."

Benchley wrote a blog on her experience as an athlete living with cancer. In it, she writes of survivor's responsibility.

"It's not about survivor guilt; it's survivors responsibility telling the story," she said. "'What are you going to do?' Pushing for more drugs and research.

"Knowing what I know now, it doesn't define you. It's not your end all be all. It's not. It's this part that's there now, and okay, this is what we do to deal with it... and you just keep going."

Pam says she's feeling very well: she's cancer-free in her liver and continuing to make progress in her treatment with breast cancer. Next year? She's considering another Ironman.

To read Pam Benchley's blog, click HERE.

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