Is Cancer Worse Than Alcoholism?
When Pamela Pecs Cytron was diagnosed with breast cancer she received widespread, heartfelt sympathy. But she had to face her alcoholism alone.
I meet Pam in the lobby of the Princeton Club in midtown Manhattan. She’s a super-successful CEO, founder of a financial technology company that sells to blue chip Wall Street clients. As she breezes confidently into the club's baroque room dining room, it’s hard to believe that just over two years ago she was on a plane back from rehab—after decades of high-functioning alcoholism, two DUIs and numerous mental and physical injuries—when she found the lumps that would soon be confirmed as breast cancer. Because of what she calls this “catastrophic collision,” she’s well-placed to comment on the extent to which Americans really rate alcoholism as a disease.
She sucks on a Diet Coke like she later does with a cigarette, a trim blonde woman two days short of her 45th birthday. With a focus born of a thousand business meetings, she perches on a leather sofa and talks intensely in streetwise tones for two hours, leaning forward to meet my eyes when she feels something is important, with the occasional suggestion of a wink.
By the time she was 25 she was making over $250,000 a year. The drinking never went away, but never stopped her from achieving everything she wanted career-wise.
Pam began drinking at 13. She and her family moved from Chicago to Van Horn, Texas, a town of 2,500 where there was nothing to do, “just tumbleweed blowing around.” With a small pool of available friends, she found herself hanging out with much older kids—and their supplies of Southern Comfort and Mountain Dew. And she was good at drinking: “I’ve always had a very high tolerance. Friends around me would be falling over and I could keep going.” It was an ability that would allow her to function at the top of her game through decades of binging.
After moving to Wyoming, she shone at school, as class president, cheerleading captain and in-crowd ringleader, partying every weekend. Her mother and step-father, who rarely drank, were aware—she was left unconscious on their doorstep after a night of drunken snowmobiling one Christmas Eve, and her increasingly regular disgraces prompted some emotional disruption at home. Years later, when Pam told her mother that she’d sought treatment for alcoholism—the same day she told her about the cancer—she responded, “It’s about time. You’ve been this way for a long time and it's hereditary.”
Leaving home at 17, she fled back to Chicago, to live with her biological father, whom she'd only seen periodically over the years. Abandoning the trappings of a high-school star, along with any chance of a college scholarship, Pam gave up trying for a while and rapidly gained weight—before achieving some independence through a secretarial job and slimming back down with a “vodka and bean diet.” At 18, she was engaged to a fireman, whose Latvian background won the approval of her also-Latvian family. Just months before their big wedding, it was over: “I was drunk as hell when I left him.” Four months later she married his best friend.
She then scored a telemarketing job at the company where her career would soon soar, despite the constant flow of alcohol: “I’d commute in, drinking Bloody Marys in my Ford Festiva.” So how did she manage to combine productivity and endless boozing? “I don’t know. I just know I always could.” It was while she was divorcing her first husband at the age of 20 that she met Andrew, “a nice Jewish boy, not my type at all.” They’ve now been married for 20 years. At first he largely distracted her from alcohol, as she entered a relatively settled phase of her life: “For the first eight months we just had sex.”
By the time she was 25 she was making over $250,000 a year. The drinking never went away, but never stopped her from achieving everything she wanted career-wise. “You know that book about the high functioning alcoholic? I could have written it.” She would travel for work, drain the contents of her hotel minibar, call the front desk to complain that her room hadn’t been stocked, then down the complimentary drinks they sent by way of apology. Her husband—“never a huge drinker”—would sometimes comment on the bottles of wine that kept disappearing from their fridge, but that was all. Not until she was 34 did a loud alarm bell ring in her marriage. She was at a restaurant with Andrew, knocking back her usual cocktails, when he finally told her that her drinking was becoming a problem, that she needed to slow down.
Pam looks at me with narrowed eyes, reliving her response with chilling conviction: “If you ever mention that again, I’ll leave you. We’re done. I will not slow down, I’m not doing that, I’m not getting old, and you know what?” She holds my eyes, “If you ever stop drinking, I don’t need you either. You’re either on the bus with me or you get off it.” Andrew never mentioned it again.