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Wednesday, 02 May 2012 22:27

Fighting Cancer with Inner Strength: My Story

Fred Williams Fred Williams Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Fred always wanted to be an astronaut. He wanted to explore places where few had ever been. Little did he dream it would ultimately be into inner space, in the form of breast cancer.

Fred Williams Close Up

And so with an explorer’s imagination and an aptitude for science, Fred prepared in high school to become an aerospace engineer. But life had other plans for him.

After the moon landing, the space race slowed down and the would-be astronaut faced a tough decision about his future. Fred switched his major and earned a degree in chemistry from West Virginia University. After a few twists in his career path, he is now a chemist working for an explosives company in Utah. “I make sure the company gets the most bang for the buck,” he chuckles.

In Utah, he met and married his wife and best friend, Debbie. They have been married for 14 years and do everything together. Debbie is a nurse. So when Fred had rib pain and a rash below his nipple that wouldn’t go away, she encouraged him to see a doctor. He did. The first clinic couldn't find anything. Fred and Debbie still knew something was wrong. The second clinic sent him straight to a surgeon. 

“I never dreamed it would be breast cancer.”

While rare in males, Fred was the third man with this disease examined by that Utah surgeon that year. The chemist speaks freely about his unique experiences. “It was rather amusing,” Fred recalled, “that they could get enough tissue for the mammogram.” A biopsy then confirmed the diagnosis. What followed was a radical modified mastectomy on Fred’s left breast.

The good news coming out of surgery was that the medical team had been able to remove 99 percent of the cancer. The bad news was that it had already moved into Fred’s lymph nodes and, as it turned out, his bones. His Utah physicians started Fred on anti-hormone therapy and radiation on only one rib. As his cancer markers kept going up, Fred and Debbie grew frustrated. When a bone scan indicated that the cancer had progressed in his vertebrae, they looked for help from another source. 

Fred’s sister-in-law suggested he consider Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). 

Fred Williams with Rocket

When he saw that the Tulsa hospital offered treatment on the weekends, he called. “When they heard my story, they fast-tracked me,” Fred said. Four days later, he was in Tulsa being examined by oncologist/hematologist Dr. George River, triple-board certified in medical oncology, hematology and internal medicine and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. Dr. River was accompanied by an integrated team of specialists, including a radiation oncologist, naturopath, dietitian, physical therapist, lymphedema specialist, and nurses. “I saw them all together, and the exchange of information between them helped a lot. I was really impressed,” Fred said.

But what Dr. River had to say was serious. A PET scan and other tests revealed significant damage in Fred’s vertebrae. “You could be facing paralysis,” Dr. River told him. “We need to start radiation right now.” Fred saw his PET scan, MRIs and the damage in his vertebrae. 

“They said, ‘We have a different philosophy out here. We want to hit it with everything we’ve got, rather than waiting and just trying to keep it in check.’ I like that.” So Fred came back in February 2011 for an intensive round of radiation treatment. He and Debbie stayed in the outpatient accommodations during the middle of the worst snowstorm to hit Tulsa in decades. “The facility was great,” Fred said. “It doesn't look like a hospital at all.” 

So he and Debbie settled in for four weeks at CTCA while Fred had radiation therapy. The team worked with him to find a better anti-hormone treatment. The lymphedema specialist in the oncology rehabilitation department taught him how to be careful with his left arm, where lymph nodes were removed. His physical therapist taught him proper lifting techniques and recommended physical activities that would be good for him. His gastroenterologist, Dr. Ross Taylor, helped manage the side effects of radiation.

Through it all, Fred and Debbie asked questions. A lot of questions. The team listened, researched options, and adapted the treatment plan to fit Fred and the special needs of his body. In addition to the radiation, he started chemotherapy treatment with Taxol.® It made Fred nauseous so it was switched to Abraxane.® Fred the chemist explains, “It’s Taxol with a protein attached to it. This means they don’t have to use a certain solvent, which is what causes nausea. It’s more gut-friendly.” But just to make sure, the team added anti-nausea medication to Fred’s chemo cocktail.

During chemotherapy, Fred and Debbie were flying to Tulsa every three weeks. Because Southwestern has a weekend treatment option, Fred didn’t have to miss work to receive his treatments. “We’d fly in on Friday night, meet with Dr. River and the team and take my chemo treatment on Saturday, then fly back out on Sunday. I was back at work on Monday morning. It was great,” said Fred. That was one of many things he appreciated about the hospital’s approach to medicine. 

“Dr. River was very open to other treatments and options,” Fred said. “He was also quite honest about what can and can’t be done. I really appreciate that. I feel like we can ask questions, and they will listen to us. They don’t make us feel intimidated at all. They’ve been just terrific.” 

Fred Williams Mid

At one point, the team told him that because of his vertebrae damage that he should be in excruciating pain. He wasn’t. “I guess I should thank my parents,” he laughed. “They made me sit up straight, not slouch and keep my shoulders back. The Tulsa team told me I have perfect posture, and that’s what saved me.” Now Fred wears a back brace for support, but only at work. He is allowed and encouraged to do non-impact activities like walking and swimming. And his 40-minute commute twice a day doesn’t bother him.

Neither does his favorite pastime: model rocketry. The would-be astronaut loves to tinker with model rockets. Fred and Debbie go out on the old Pony Express Trail to launch them with other members of the Utah chapter of the National Association of Rocketry. Fred has won so many medals for his rocket wizardry over the years that he’s lost count.

Now his focus is on the space inside his body. “My doctors in Tulsa told me,‘We’re going to give you our best recommendations on your course of treatment. But it’s ultimately your decision.’ I read the science, researched treatment options and asked a lot of questions.”

The scientist in him is as curious as ever. “I have a sense of wonder about it all,” Fred says. “I am fascinated by what is going on inside my body, and figuring out what is going to stop it. Dr. River and my medical team in Tulsa listen to what I have to say about it. That’s where my strength comes from.”

This  article was the featured article in the "Cancer Treatment Center of America's 2011 Annual Report with Cancer Registry Statistical Data from 2010." The article is reproduced here with permission of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.


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