MORGANTOWN — Debbie Williams is a survivor.
She has been for at least 14 years.
That’s how long she’s been living with triple negative breast cancer.
During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she wants other women to know it’s possible to get through the devastating diagnosis and then the treatments.
“If you have a lot of hope. If you have a lot of faith. If you have a lot of belief, you can make it through it,” she said. “I want to instill hope. There is hope. Be positive, and you can get through it.”
Administrative assistant for WVU men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins, Williams was first diagnosed in November 2004. She was 40.
“It’s always bad to hear you have cancer, but then to know you have a really aggressive cancer …”
Williams found the lump under her right breast.
“I never really did the self-exams like I should have,” she said. “I don’t know what made me do it” that day.
When she found the lump, cancer crossed her mind, so she went to see her gynecologist. He sent her to a surgeon, who did a biopsy and determined it was cancer.
She then went to the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center and met Dr. Jame Abraham.
“I am so thankful for Dr. Abraham,” she said. “He is the greatest doctor ever. He’s so
personable. You can’t ask for a better oncologist.
“I can’t say enough about Dr. Abraham. I can’t say enough about the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center.”
Abraham has since moved from WVU to Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, but Williams still sees him for follow-up appointments. She said she wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for Abraham.
From Abraham, Williams learned about her Stage 2B triple negative diagnosis. She also learned it’s a very aggressive cancer that can only be treated with chemo-therapy and radiation.
So, that’s what she did, along with having a lumpectomy.
It seemed to work, until 2007, when the cancer was back in the same area. This time she had a mastectomy and immediate reconstruction. If she had that to do over, she might skip the reconstruction.
That surgery involved taking tissue from her stomach and using it to reconstruct her right breast. The surgeon — not Abraham — didn’t replace the muscle, and she had problems with hernias. That led to hernia surgeries each of three years.
She had to go through chemo and radiation again. She also took steroids to help with the nausea caused by the treatments. She didn’t let those treatments keep her from work, even though it left her exhausted after each one.
“I didn’t want to have chemo or radiation and go home and think about it,” she said. She wanted to keep busy.
And she is busy. She’s been with WVU Athletics for 24 years. She was there for Gale Catlett and John Beilein.
She helps oversee Coach Huggins’ office, his daily schedule and recruiting materials, among other duties.
Once again, treatment worked and Williams was in remission.
“Remission doesn’t mean cancer is out of your body,” she said. “It’s still there, but it’s stable. It’s dormant. You never know what might trigger it.”
Some — including doctors — say cancer is caused by certain foods or drink, or the air. Williams doesn’t disagree, but she also thinks stress plays a part.
In May 2011, her teenage daughter was diagnosed with chiari malformation, probably a birth defect that causes brain tissue to extend into the spinal canal. Her daughter had surgery for that at 17 and is still doing well.
“We got her well, and my cancer came back,” Williams said. “It can spread and reoccur anytime.”
In July 2011, doctors found the cancer had spread to Williams’ right lung and chest wall. The tumor was removed from the lung, and another round of chemo was started for what was in the chest.
This pushed William’s diagnosis up to Stage 4.
In January 2012, Williams was stable again — in remission. Abraham suggested taking chemo treatments forever — a maintenance plan.
“I said, ‘I don’t think that’s in my plans,’ but me being the patient, I listened,” Williams said.
By that Thanksgiving, she started experiencing side effects, including headaches and low hemo-globin. She had blood transfusions two times over as many weeks.
Not one to miss work, she was forced to take a week off and recuperate.
Since 2004, Williams researched triple negative breast cancer and possible treatments, besides the chemo and radiation.
“I told Dr. Abraham I wanted to stop the chemo,” she said. “I told him I just needed a break from it. I wanted a better quality of life.”
Abraham wanted her to try a different chemo-therapy, maybe one that wouldn’t cause the same side effects.
Williams told him about her research and how she wanted to go to New York and see a specialist at Sloan Kettering about using vitamins and supplements.
He agreed. She went to New York and came back with a list of vitamins to try.
“He was open to that, but said there were no guarantees my cancer wouldn’t come back,” she said. “I felt comfortable taking that risk.”
She now takes 12-15 vitamins and supplements with dinner each day.
She also started exercising and eating better. She lost 30 pounds she put on with the steroids.
Earlier this year, she cut sugar from her diet.
“I feel better because I’m not on chemo,” she said.
She continues with PET scans every six months and blood work in between.
A couple weeks ago, she got her most recent results. She’s stable again.
Williams said she is inspired by a few people: Her parents, her daughter and Huggins.
“Coach Huggins is a big inspiration,” she said. “He’s done so much for the cancer center. Because of him, we are getting more clinical trials and we need them.
“It’s not all about the pink ribbons. We have the awareness, we need more research. We need a cure.”
Huggins finds Williams inspirational, too.
“It continues to amaze me that after all that Debbie has been through, it has never affected her work ethic, her cheerful personality and her ability to relate with others,” Huggins said. “We receive many requests to talk to people afflicted with various diseases and illnesses at Ruby Memorial Hospital. Debbie always volunteers to speak to cancer patients before, during and after their stays. If our players had her resiliency and determination, we would likely never lose a game.”
Williams said she only knows how to be herself.
“Some people ask me how I keep smiling,” she said. “I say, ‘how do you not?’ Just because I have cancer, it’s not going to define me. I’m not going to let it drag me down.”
MORGANTOWN — Debbie Williams is a survivor.