Three time cancer survivor - “God had me strong”
Two years ago, Mary Williams, then-46, was relaxing at home after cleaning up the Mother’s Day dinner she hosted for her family. For a reason she didn’t know then but appreciates now, she felt compelled to do the self-exam she had avoided for decades, despite periodically having sharp pain in her left breast for a year.
“It had to be God,” she said.
Williams felt the pea-sized lump that started the cancer battle she continues to fight — persevering through masses found in her breast, lung and brain.
“God has me still here for a reason,” she said.
And the reason this triple cancer survivor agreed to share her story with the Ledger-Enquirer during Breast Cancer Awareness Month is to inspire her fellow survivors and encourage others to follow the lessons she learned.
‘I was scared’
Although her maternal grandmother died from breast cancer in 1969 and her sister is a breast cancer survivor, Williams, a 1988 graduate of the now-closed Baker High School, never followed breast cancer screening recommendations.
“I was scared,” she said.
Guidelines vary slightly among cancer experts and groups, but they generally encourage an annual mammogram as early as age 40 for higher risk women and by age 45 for average risk women, and women of all ages should perform a self-exam monthly.
Fear is a common reason why women don’t follow the guidelines, said Cheryl Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the West Central Georgia Cancer Coalition.
“Prevention is key,” Johnson said. “Early detection saves lives. So we ask women to get that done. And if you can’t afford it, that’s why we’re here. So no one in our region should say that they’re unable to or can’t afford it.”
Williams now preaches that sermon.
“I want other women to get themselves checked,” she said. “Don’t wait. Don’t be scared.”
WCGCC’s four-person staff serves 13 counties in the Columbus area, guiding patients from diagnosis to remission. The coalition provides cancer screenings for uninsured and under-insured residents, mostly for breast, prostate and colorectal cancers. Last year, WCGCC screened and educated approximately 450 people, Johnson said.
The coalition’s funding, roughly $360,000 this year, Johnson said, comes from several revenue streams, including donations, foundations, grants, the Georgia breast cancer car tag and the 1998 master settlement agreement between tobacco companies and 46 states.
Williams benefited from the coalition’s Neighbors Helping Neighbors Cancer Assistance Fund, which helps inadequately insured cancer patients with low to moderate income pay for living expense while they are in chemotherapy or radiation regimens. Last year, the WCGCC provided this financial help to 30 cancer patients. The average amount of assistance was $1,500, Johnson said.
‘I just wanted to flip’
Struggling with high blood pressure, Williams wasn’t working full time. She was a substitute teacher for a Head Start prekindergarten class in the Enrichment Services Program, but she didn’t have medical insurance.
So when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2016, Williams said, “I just wanted to flip.”
But she found strength through her faith, family and friends. She moved in with her daughter, Myisha Leonard, and her son-in-law and two grandchildren.
Williams also praised the WCGCC staff and programs for supporting her after the effects of the cancer treatments forced her to stop working in August 2016.
“They not only helped me financially; they helped me mentally and emotionally,” she said.
In December 2016, she had surgery to remove the 7-centimeter tumor from her left breast. Ten lymph nodes also were removed. Two of them were cancerous. Then she went through four months of chemotherapy, followed by 32 days of radiation.
‘I got on my knees’
Two years after her breast cancer diagnosis, Williams again felt compelled to have another part of her body checked. Despite a persistent cough from February to June 2018, doctors didn’t examine her lungs until she asked in July.
The test showed she has lung cancer — Stage 4.
“I cried,” she said. “I got on my knees.”
A month later, seizures led to scans that revealed a Grade 4 brain tumor.
Her family gathered in her hospital room and was “just shocked,” Williams said. “I never cried. I sat on that bed, and I seen God through this whole situation. Everybody in the room, my family, boohooing. I’m the one keeping the family together.”
Johnson described Williams as “always having that sparkle of hope.”
“A lot of times, when people hear Stage 4, that’s a death sentence,” Johnson said. “But it’s not. As long as you have that hope and that positive attitude, knowing and feeling that you’re going to beat this, everyone’s journey is different, but the commonality is that you’re on that journey.”
Despite those odds, Williams proclaimed, “God is good, and with me spiritual, praying, having faith, I didn’t run around asking everybody to pray for me. Even if they prayed for me, I had to have faith that God had my back.”
Her brain surgery was supposed to last 3 hours and possibly result in a coma, but she was out in 1 hour and walking and talking. In fact, she was so confident of a hopeful outcome, she still had lipstick on when she was wheeled into the operating room.
“Even in that time where it is you’re not sure you’re going to wake up, she still had that positive attitude,” Johnson marveled.
“I’m dressed up every day,” Williams said, “because I’m a dressed-up person. I ain’t never gave up on life about nothing I ever went through — never gave up on life. That’s why I can get through cancer.”
‘Not the last stage of my life’
The surgery removed 98 percent of the brain tumor. Radiation eliminated the rest. Now, she is going through oral chemotherapy to combat the lung cancer. For the rest of her life, she must take those pills.
“They got a lot of deadly side effects,” she said, “but I haven’t seen none. I thank God. . . . Stage 4 is supposed to be the last stage of your life, but it’s not the last stage of my life.”
No wonder. She already has beaten breast cancer and brain cancer.
The John B. Amos Cancer Center helped her pay for the pills, which cost approximately $1,000 for 14 days, she said. Medicaid also has helped while she still waits to be approved for the disability payments she applied for two years ago. The American Cancer Society helps her get a wig.
Her advice to other women: “No matter how scared you is, you need to take a self-exam, take a mammogram.”
And if you are diagnosed with cancer, don’t hide it from your family, which is what her sister did, Williams said.
“You’ve got to have the courage and the faith not to give up,” she said.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.
The West Central Georgia Cancer Coalition conducts a free breast cancer screening clinic the last Tuesday of each month in collaboration with Dr. Kenneth Smith at the John B. Amos Cancer Center, 1831 Fifth Ave., in Columbus. During the Paint the Town Pink event Oct. 19, the WCGCC will use Piedmont Columbus Regional’s mobile unit to provide free breast cancer screenings at Woodruff Park, 1000 Bay Ave., in downtown Columbus. Call 706-660-1914 for an appointment.