Michael, Pamela, Cancer and Genetics: A Love Story

Michael, Pamela, Cancer and Genetics: A Love Story

Every few months Michael and Pamela Kander, both 75, drop in at City of Hope’s Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center in Irvine, California, for their respective checkups. It’s not far from their home in Fountain Valley and every time they visit, either together or separately, it feels like a family reunion.

“We love all the people at City of Hope,” said Michael. “They all know us! It’s like ‘Cheers!’ (where everybody knows your name...remember?) The place is huge, but it’s also very personal!”

Nishan Tchekmedyian, M.D.

They come to see oncologist Nishan Tchekmedyian M.D., who looks after both of them. Michael is monitored following successful surgery in 2019 to treat pancreatic cancer. Pamela is a double survivor: thyroid cancer in 2002 and Stage 3 breast cancer a decade later. 
Tchekmedyian began treating Michael first, even before joining City of Hope. Then, in 2021 when Tchekmedyian made the switch, Michael followed him and eventually brought Pamela to see him as well. They are fans.

“We love his thoroughness. We know he’s there for both of us,” said Pamela. “I love how he listens, how he cares. He’s cheerful, energetic, focused on details.”

The feeling is mutual.

“They are a pleasure to take care of,” said Tchekmedyian, Regional Medical Director, City of Hope Orange County. “They are so engaged in their care, and it feels really good to see them doing so well.”

The Kanders also receive genetic counseling. Michael has the BRCA2 mutation, putting him at risk for a variety of cancers. Pamela carries the BLM mutation (known as “Bloom Syndrome”) which puts her at similar risk.

Safe to say, therefore, that genetics has profoundly impacted their lives. This is true, but not for the reasons you may think.

One can’t help smiling when watching Michael and Pamela interact, obviously very much in love, always shooting affectionate glances at each other. They are former college sweethearts who display a mischievous twinkle in their eyes when asked the obvious question: So, how long are you guys married?

They smile. “Oh,” they say, “Three and a half years!”

Come again?

Talk about family reunions. This one is for the books. 

“Our hearts became intertwined 55 years ago,” said Michael.

They were 19 when they first met, at Long Beach Community College. Michael, a native Californian, was trying out for the choir when he looked up and was “smitten by this beautiful woman who met all my criteria.”

Pamela, raised in Nebraska, had only recently come to the Golden State. “I was that girl in the bleachers” that Michael saw.

It was meant to be. Before Michael could work up the nerve to ask her out, Pamela showed up at his house… with flowers!

They fell in love and had what Michael calls a “torrid” relationship. And they had a child. A baby boy. But they weren’t married. Pamela didn’t want “a forced marriage” and she felt “Michael wasn’t ready.” Both sets of parents were not happy. Pamela was thrown out of her home because of her pregnancy. At birth the infant was put up for adoption. “I never saw my child,” Pamela laments. “Didn’t even hear him cry.”

They drifted apart. Pamela and her family (they had reconciled) moved back to Nebraska, then to Rhode Island. In the ensuing years she would marry...and divorce...three times. Michael, remaining in California, had relationships but never married. And he never stopped loving Pamela.

For the next ten years Michael and Pamela were like “parallel ships, occasionally crossing,” contacting each other from time to time, but never rekindling the relationship. Then they completely lost track of one another. For 40 years.

Unbeknownst to both of them, their son, coincidentally named Michael by his adoptive parents (we’ll call him Mike to avoid confusion) was growing up nearby in Orange County and later in Sacramento. He wasn’t told he’d been adopted until he turned 8 years old, looked around, and started asking questions.

“I knew something was different,” he recalled. “I didn’t look like either of my parents.” Finding out the truth was “quite a bit to take. I had a lot of anxiety about it.”

Mike immediately wanted to know about his birth parents but under California law adoption records are sealed. The best he could do was get on a list to be contacted, should his birth parents ever try to reach out to him. They never did.

Decades later Mike, now approaching 50, was living in Atlanta, working as an architect and antiques dealer. Both adoptive parents had passed away; his desire to find his birth parents had never waned and all his friends knew it. A sympathetic business partner gave him a gift: a subscription to AncestryDNA.

Skeptical, Mike put the box on the shelf for two years. “I thought it was just a novelty,” he said. But his business colleague kept insisting so Mike finally sent in a swab, expecting little new information.

The floodgates opened.

“To my surprise,” he remembered, “I had hundreds of DNA matches!” One of them was a second cousin who requested contact...and a photograph. One look at the cleft in Mike’s chin and the cousin knew… “That’s gotta be a Kander!” he said.

The cousin sent the photo to Michael, at the time hospitalized due to his pancreatic cancer. Michael looked at the picture and knew he was looking at his baby boy. And he knew what he needed to do next. After 40 years of silence he sought out Pamela once again. He found her, through an online search, in Olympia, Washington.

“He was so excited...really excited,” said Pamela. “I was thrilled because it said to me that he had really cared about this child and he obviously had thought about it over all those years.”

“When she responded it was like a lightning bolt!” continued Michael, his voice cracking with emotion. “Hearing her voice, it had been imprinted on me for life. I knew she still loved me!” 

They agreed to approach Mike gently. Claiming to be “a friend of the family,” Michael placed the call, with Pamela on the line. After talking for a while, Michael dropped the bombshell: “You know that hole you have in your chin? I’m pretty sure I gave it to you!”

“This still brings me to tears,” said Mike, visibly crying now. “It was so joyful, total elation, to hear Mom and Dad’s voices for the first time. It was overwhelming and it still affects me.”

That phone call lasted several hours. Mike basked in the sound of his mother’s voice. “It sounded so comforting, so familiar,” he said. Mom said she had talked to me in the womb. Was I remembering that?”

There was also much history to go through, and some hard questions. “At times it was a tough conversation,” recalled Mike. “I didn’t understand why they had abandoned me. Sometimes I still don’t.”

But it was a start. A face-to-face meeting in Southern California came soon after. It was emotional. And nerve wracking. Pamela remembers her “knees buckling” when she saw Mike for the first time. She gave him a gold ring she’d worn for decades, a reminder of the son she’d never known. He now wears it on a chain around his neck.

They’ve grown closer. Traveled together. They were all in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico when Michael (finally!) proposed and Pamela (finally!!) accepted. When they married, Mike was Best Man.

“We still pinch ourselves every day,” said Pamela. Her brother puts it another way: “The universe,” he said, “has righted its wrong!”

They are now firmly part of the greater City of Hope family, too. On May 26, 2023 Michael and Pamela were among the 100 people who signed the final beam to be installed in the new specialty cancer hospital, set to open on the Orange County campus in 2025. Both see their cancer experiences as a gift, helping them value each day, motivating them to become supporters and advocates. Going forward, they plan to do much more.

“We feel reborn, with a new life,” said Michael. “Each of us has survived cancer. And we’re together! It’s never too late. There’s so much to accomplish. So much good we can do.”

First in research. First in treatment. First in survival. When it comes to cancer, it’s Hope First. There is a City of Hope Orange County location near you. Call (888) 333-HOPE (4673).