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Debbie Williams always has been the epitome of strength to her three daughters, by demonstrating integrity and grace despite life’s circumstances, including a late-life divorce and the loss of her father.
But the Columbus resident’s strength was shaken when she was diagnosed on Nov. 26, with Stage 3 adenocarcinoma, an invasive breast cancer that had spread to surrounding tissue and the lymph nodes.
Williams said she was shocked and unsure how to react.
Her daughters, who range in age from 29 to 35, banded together, offering the same strength and support Williams had always given them. The plan of attack: Williams would not fight the disease alone.
From the get-go it was a matter of getting answers and formulating a plan, said 35-year-old Lindsay Wheatley.
“For us, the hardest thing was the huge fear of the unknown and what to expect,” Wheatley said. “She’s been our rock. The hardest thing for me was seeing her vulnerable, scared.”
Williams, a licensed practical nurse at OB/GYN Associates in Columbus, discovered a large lump under her left arm and another in her left breast while in the shower in early November.
“It had not been more than two or three months since I’d done a self breast exam. And there was nothing there,” Williams, 61, said.
The lumps were so large, nearly the size of an egg, that Williams didn’t think it was cancer. But a diagnostic mammogram and subsequent biopsy confirmed malignancy.
The first few weeks after receiving her diagnosis, Williams needed medication to sleep.
“I would lay awake and think, ‘This is a bad dream. This can’t be happening,’” she said.
Williams always had regular mammography screenings and conducted breast self-exams. She even underwent BRCA analysis, a blood test designed to detect genetic mutations that increase one’s risk for breast cancer. The result was negative.
“I did everything you are supposed to do to not get breast cancer,” Williams said.
Her treatment involved chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy and radiation.
She began chemotherapy treatment Dec. 27. Dave Renner, Williams’ companion of five years, accompanied her to every treatment and her daughters took turns.
“There was always two people with me,” Williams said. “It was nice to have the company and support.”
Williams missed only a couple of work days because of nausea and said the first four treatments were the worst.
“Adriamycin and Cytoxan are the medications. And they just wipe you out, make you lose your hair and kill off several other good living cells in your body. Of course, you are exhausted,” Williams said.
After chemo was completed, she underwent a double mastectomy to remove all her breast tissue and a lymph node dissection in April. During surgery, Williams began the first stage of reconstructive surgery with the placement of breast implants. The final stage of the surgery will be performed in December, when the implants are filled with saline.
Through it all, the greatest challenge has been staying strong and allowing others to help, even when she wasn’t up to being around people, she said.
“You have to tell yourself people are offering to do things because they care about and love you,” Williams said.
Her daughters said this experience has not only made them look closer at their own health and appreciate their family and friends but appreciate one another all the more.
“If it weren’t for my sisters and my husband, I know this would have been much more difficult for me,” 29-year-old Chelsea Lanam said.
Anytime a family goes through something like this it brings them closer together, said 32-year-old Megan Cline.
“It solidifies you are there for one another no matter what,” she said.
In August, shortly after completing radiation treatment, Williams received word that she is cancer-free. She will continue to have regular checkups with her doctors over the next few years to monitor her health.
The LPN uses her experience to encourage other women to be proactive about their health.
“When I go in on an annual exam with a patient now, I am not afraid at all to tell them to make sure they get their mammograms and to do self breast exams,” Williams said. “Because even though I’d been doing it, I still got breast cancer. But I probably found it a lot quicker.”
Facing a cancer diagnosis makes you think a lot about what the future holds, she said. But strength and a positive attitude are crucial.
“Try to carry on with your life as normally as you can,” Williams said. “Sometimes we don’t always have a lot of control over things. But the things we can control, you do your best at and get it done.”
OCCUPATION: LPN at OB/GYN Associates of Columbus.
DIAGNOSED: Nov. 26.
TYPE OF BREAST CANCER: Adenocarcinoma of the left breast, Stage 3.
TREATMENT: Chemotherapy, radiation, bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
WHAT CANCER TAUGHT ME: “Enjoy life, and never take anything for granted. Let the little things go.”
HOW CANCER CHANGED ME: “I don’t think I really realized the true value of spending quality time with friends and family. But all of a sudden, it makes you take a different look at things.”
FAMILY: Companion, David Renner; daughters Lindsay Wheatley, 35, Megan Cline, 32, and Chelsea Lanam, 29.
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