Plucky Pam Dixon strikes out cancer
Pam Dixon is the upbeat, plucky voice of the KIOA-FM morning show with partner Maxwell Schaeffer and newcomer Amy Sweet.
Her infectious optimism earns her the kind of loyal listeners the late, great disc jockey extraordinaire Dic Youngs used to engender at the station.
So it surprised even Pam when the darkest of thoughts crept into her thinking when her breast cancer re-emerged earlier this year after three years effectively dormant.
She took short-term disability from Des Moines Radio Group in February.
On air and in public, she was all bravado. But inside, the perpetually positive Pam wavered.
“I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m going to come back from this,’” she said. “I don’t know why I let that thought slip in there, but I didn’t know if I was going to make it.”
Pam took her daughter, 21-year-old Maddie, on a cruise to Mexico. She wondered if her bosses would think she was goldbricking.
“I really thought this would be the last time we be able to take a trip together,” Pam said.
She had reason to be grim. Pam had stage 4 breast cancer, and this was her third battle with the disease.
The American Cancer Society estimates the five-year survival rate for stage 4 breast cancer is about 22 percent.
Pam was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She beat it.
But it came back again five years later and this time had spread to her liver.
Doctors controlled the cancer with chemotherapy and drugs. The cancer didn’t recede, but it didn’t grow either.
Earlier this year, though, the drugs she was taking to hold the cancer back started to fail. Doctors theorized Pam had built up an immunity to the treatment.
The cancer was had spread to other organs. Pam started to mark life by milestones she wanted to live to see.
“When I first got this, I wanted to make it long enough to see my daughter graduate from high school,” Pam said. “When it came back, I was hoping I would make it to see her graduate from college.”
Surviving once was challenge enough.
The second go-round was exhausting. Could she really make it three times in a row?
Pam took her disability, secretly wondering if she would ever return to the job she loved.
She took her treatments. She rested. She hugged her daughter often.
And she relied on the kindness of KIOA listeners.
Pam ate lunch with Maxwell one day while on leave. The drugs left her with a terrible metallic taste in her mouth. She wanted something strong enough that she could actually taste the food. She found success with a bowl of chili.
Maxwell mentioned the meal on the air one day. Pretty soon, listeners were dropping off cans of chili at the station for Pam.
“They were so considerate,” Pam said. “They even left equal amounts of chili with beans and with no beans.”
Another friend left her soup once or twice a week. A listener from Carlisle sent Pam a “Smile Book,” filled with corny jokes and inspirational passages.
An example: “Did you hear about the cell phone wedding? The ceremony was great, but the reception was terrible.”
“I turned to that book on a lot of days,” Pam said.
As days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, Pam’s thoughts were less about death and dying and more about pulling off the unthinkable: beating cancer a third time.
Late July arrived. Pam visited her oncologist.
The news was good — the best. Tests could find no trace of active cancer cells in her body.
“I couldn’t process it,” she said. “I had stage 4 cancer, and now they couldn’t find it. It was a miracle. I was — I am — living a miracle.”
Pam returned to work Monday to great fanfare. She joined in the morning show’s usual bits such as “Stupid News” and bantered with Maxwell and Amy from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.
They played a welcome back message with station employees offering heartfelt and humorous salutations to their returning colleague over Rachel Platten’s hit “Fight Song.”
The last voice on the recording was Pam’s daughter Maddie: “I love you to the moon and back.”
That got Pam crying, but not so much that she couldn’t crack wise.
“I can’t believe you got her to call you back,” Pam said on air.
Pam learned Maddie actually came into the studio to record the lines.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Pam said. “She’s just so shy. That’s just something she wouldn’t do. That makes it even more special.”
Pam is fully in optimistic mode now. The dark thoughts are behind her.
Oh, she realizes there’s a good chance the cancer could reoccur again.
But there’s something special going on with this 57-year-old lady who grew up in Beaverdale.
Sunday night before she went back to work, she settled in to watch her beloved Chicago Cubs play the Los Angeles Dodgers.
She figured she’d watch a few innings and go to bed. And just as it had so many other times in her life, fate had other plans.
Cubs right-handed pitcher Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter. Pam watched every out.
“It’s not like I could go to bed with a no-hitter going,” she said. “I knew I was going to be tired in the morning, but you know what? You’ve only got one life, so fight like hell.”
DANIEL P. FINNEY, the Register’s Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or email@example.com. Twitter:@newsmanone.