Melissa Ferrell Williams’s life changed in 2013 after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, then her sister was diagnosed with lung cancer and then she, herself, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Last February (2013) my mother (Lucille Trent) fell and broke her hip and while she was in the hospital my sister (Michelle Lilly) kept getting sick,” Williams said. “She kept going (back) to the doctor and by March my sister had found out she had lung cancer (stage 4), and they confirmed it in April. My mom was still pretty weak, so we didn’t tell her until May.”
Williams said when she and her sister went to tell her mother about the lung cancer, their mother said she had found a lump in her breast.
“She found out in June she had stage 4 breast cancer,” Williams, who is 40-years-old now, said. “My sister started chemo in June of 2013, my mom started in July of 2013. By August my Mom had been in the hospital twice. Both times they said she might not make it so we had her sent to Vanderbilt.”
Williams said every time her mother would start to get better and they would give her chemo she would go down hill again.
“By October she had been in the hospital for over three weeks, the doctors said it was looking grim,” Williams said. “She had bladder cancer in 2007, and there’s only a 10 years (life expectancy) there.”
Williams said the doctors told them to look at hospice care but Williams said they were not giving up.
In the meantime, Williams said she had a really good friend that was urging her to get checked.
“They only had one opening, and that happened to be two days before Thanksgiving. (I scheduled a) mammogram and a lung scan just to be on the safe side,” Williams said.
At the appointment Williams said they walked in and said there was something that wasn’t right and they were going to send her for a biopsy.
Williams said she called her husband and went to his work after leaving the doctor and being told that she likely had breast cancer.
Her mother’s doctors told her not to tell her mother, due to her having been so ill.
“We needed to wait. My brother and I decided because my sister had been so sick, that we didn’t need to tell her so we just went on and did everything as planned,” Williams said.
When she had the biopsy done the doctors told Williams the results were inconclusive.
“The doctor kept saying I think we need to take it a step further so be back here in the morning and we’re going to do a lumpectomy and find out what it is,” she said.
The Williams’ also waited to tell their (now) 11-year-old daughter, who had lost an aunt a few years earlier to cancer and she had the lumpectomy while her mother was in chemo and her daughter was at school.
“I knew I couldn’t tell her (her mother),” Williams said. “I saw the look on her face when my sister told her. I saw the devastation that she … I didn’t want to see that. If I could have gone through the whole process without my mother finding out, I would have.”
Williams said her mother’s doctors wound up being her doctors and she found out that her cancer was stage 2b and had spread to her lymph nodes.
“It wasn’t as bad as my mom’s or my sister’s,” she said. “So they started right away, they jumped on doing chemo.”
She had her port, to take the chemo treatments through, put in on January 5, and started chemo the next day. However, on the Friday before she got her port put in she found out that her and her mother had chemo scheduled for the same day—so she would have to tell her.
“She was stronger and she was doing better, but she still wasn’t where she needed to be,” Williams said. “We went in on a Saturday and I said ‘Did you say you had to go in on Tuesday (for chemo)’ and she said ‘yeah’ and I told her I would save her a seat beside me.”
Williams said her mother didn’t hear what she had said at first and her step-father asked her mother if she had heard what Williams had said.
“She said, ‘no I didn’t hear what she said’ and I told her ‘I would save her a seat beside me,’” Williams said. “She said ‘what do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well mom, they found breast cancer.’ Instantly I could see all the strides she had made just fell. Her face went white and she sat there in disbelief.”
Williams said her husband went outside and grabbed some pebbles and explained to her mother that the cancer had been about 3-centimeters and had already been removed and the doctor’s thought they could take care of it, which was why Williams was beginning chemo.
“All the tissue came back cancerous and that’s why they were jumping on board (with the chemo) so quick,” she said.
Williams said her mother went with her the first time she had chemo and sat beside her.
“She kept trying to feed me, you know like a mom would do, just like if your kid is sick. She was trying her best to make it better,” Williams said. “She kept saying this is what it’s going to be like, you’re going to feel like this…that was the hardest part. I had gone with her; I had seen her go through chemo. I always felt like I was the healer, so I didn’t want to be the sick one. I kept telling her it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be alright.”
Williams said her mother felt like she had failed both of her children but she had done a genealogy test and it had come back negative, showing that a gene had not caused her cancer.
“My last (chemo) treatment was April 22, then I had a bi-lateral mastectomy on May 28 and they didn’t want me to take conventional radiation because I already have a heart murmur,” she said.
Williams explained conventional radiation damages the heart.
“So I started proton therapy, which a lot of people are not familiar with. It’s kind of like a big brother to radiation. It is a proton beam that goes in,” she said.
Williams’ husband explained that the therapy is a hydrogen atom, where radiation actually goes into the body and has to exit through your organs, be it your heart, lungs, liver, or whatever; proton therapy only penetrates the amount of tissue that a physicist will allow it to penetrate.
Normally it takes two weeks before they start treatment because they have to set the beam up for each patient. They can give a larger dose of proton therapy than radiation because it does not go through the organs.
The proton therapy kills the bad cells but doesn’t kill the good cells, unlike radiation.
So with Williams, because her cancer was in her left breast, the beam will only penetrate a small amount of her left breast tissue. Williams said it doesn’t hurt, but does leave the skin looking like it has been sunburned and that will fade quickly when she is done her treatments.
Because the treatment is such a new therapy for breast cancer, Williams will be followed for the rest of her life by a doctor out of Atlanta.
“I will not let cancer define me,” Williams said. “I didn’t have a question as to whether I was going to beat this; I just knew I was not going to let it define me. I wasn’t going to give up and give in.”
Even though everything came back negative in April, Williams will not be considered cancer free until they complete the proton therapy later this year.
Williams said her mother, Lucille Trent, is 63-years-old and is doing much better since the doctors got the cancer.
Her sister, Michelle Lilly, is 43-years-old and still taking treatments at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.