Employee Spotlight: Karen Williams, Administrative Assistant, Breast Cancer Survivor

"It was as if life was standing still.  Two co-workers were standing at my desk when I got the news and one of them stopped and prayed for me right then."

Hello everyone! It’s me Karen, wanting to share a very scary time in my life with you.  I have been the Administrative Assistant for Suwanee and Duluth.  I have always loved my job and the people I’ve got to know and grown to love.  I started out working with Laura Steffee and then with Sales by blasting out contracts with work that needed to be implemented and support for the team and have been working for Facilities for about 4 years.  I’ve always tried to be helpful and cheerful to everyone, if I haven’t been, then please forgive me. 

On April 13, 2010, after many mammograms, ultrasounds and biopsy I was told that I was positive for breast cancer, while sitting at my desk in Suwanee.  I was stunned, numb and couldn’t even move my body, but I didn’t cry.  It was as if life was standing still.  2 co-workers were standing at my desk when I got the news and one of them stopped and prayed for me right then. They told me I should go home and I said nah, I’ll be fine.  Later in the afternoon I had to leave because I couldn’t even concentrate on my work and I had so much going through my mind.  I want this cancer out of my body ASAP, am I going to die, what do I do now, I need to tell Rick my beloved husband, oh my, I have to tell our children, what about work am I going to lose my job and on and on and on. My world as I knew it changed at that moment and it’s never going to be the same again.

Most people don’t even know that there are many types of breast cancer.  The pathology report stated that I had Triple Negative Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, stage 1 and grade 2.  

Now for some education.  There are 5 stages: stage 0 (zero), which is noninvasive ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), and stages I through IV (1 through 4), which are used for invasive breast cancer. ... Pathologic staging is based on what is found during surgery to remove breast tissue and lymph nodes. Cancer cells are given a grade according to how different they are to normal breast cells and how quickly they are growing.

There are three grades of invasive breast cancer:
grade 1 – looks most like normal breast cells and is usually slow-growing
grade 2 – looks less like normal cells and is growing faster
grade 3 – looks different to normal breast cells and is usually fast-growing

Grade is different to the stage of breast cancer. About 10% - 20% of breast cancer types is Triple Negative.  Here is the definition of Triple Negative:
A diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer means that the three most common types of receptors known to fuel most breast cancer growth–estrogen, progesterone, and the HER-2/neu gene– are not present in the cancer tumor.

Ok, now the journey begins; choosing doctors, hospital and where to have my treatment. After learning about the severity of Triple Neg I was really scared even more but I was so happy that we had caught this monster pretty early.  I had my first lumpectomy, removal of 6 lymph nodes, breast reduction and bone marrow taken out of both sides of my hip, was on May 5th. I worked fast at getting everything lined up as fast as possible.

One thing that I forgot to mention was me giving all of this to God!  I had trust and faith that He would get me though all of what was in front of me.
Bad news, had to go back into surgery exactly 1 week from the first due to the cancer margins were not clear for a second Lumpectomy. Everything went just fine.
The treatment plan was set for me to have chemotherapy over the next 4 month after recovering from the surgeries.  The chemo of choice was Taxatere and Cytoxin to be given one at a time which was a drip at a time.  The Cytoxin has a derivative of mustard gas in it. That scared me a lot!  I would be at the infusion center for about 7 – 8 hours each time.  After that, I was to receive 34 Radiation treatments, five days a week for 6 ½ weeks. The radiation wasn’t too bad but I had to make sure that I didn’t get blistered after a while.  I still remembered that I had God on my side and he knows how stubborn I am, but knew He was walking me through it all the time  Funny thing is I have 7 tattoos that were measured on my body for the radiation beams to line up with.  Never thought I’d ever have 1 tattoo much less 7.

I won’t bore you with the side effects of chemo but let me say, it was rough!  I started losing my hair about 11 days into the first chemo treatment.  One good thing about it was I saved money on shampoo and gel.  Didn’t start growing in until late October of 2010.

I wasn’t able to work for 7 months and took short term and long term disability.  QTS was so great, I never missed a check on pay dates.  Thank you QTS for keeping my mind on my getting well and not on money coming in!

Everyone from QTS was go sweet and supportive with their kind and loving remarks and prayers.  I re-read my CaringBridge.org journal yesterday and I had forgotten about so many positive, uplifting messages to me from my co-workers that I had to go to at least 3 of them and give them a hug and said thanks.  It actually made me cry.  I’m so blessed with family and good friends! I did feel that my life was suspended in the air while their lives were moving along. I thoroughly enjoyed the cards, chocolates and flowers from my friends at QTS! It  

One day early after my first chemo, I decided to go to the Suwanee office and see everybody.  Now I had mentioned on my journal that I couldn’t taste anything except strawberry ice cream and one of the guys went out while I was there and brought me back 2 cartons of strawberry ice cream.  That meant so much to me, it’s the little things that you appreciate the most.
Immediately after radiation treatments were over, I got lymphedema in my surgery side arm.  That would include getting wrapped up like a mummy after massages for a week to move the lymphatic fluids to stop my arm from swelling.  That arm can never get a needle stick, blood pressure, cuts because it could cause lymphedema again.  Had to wear a compression sleeve and glove for 7 weeks.  Not long after, I developed shingles and the list went on and on.

One thing that I want to make clear is MEN GET BREAST CANCER TOO!  My husband’s grandfather had it back in the 1970s.
I know that it’s sometimes difficult to know what to say to cancer patients but let them know they are cared about and loved, just a note of encouragement, don’t ask what I can I do for you, just do something!  They can always use someone to talk to or take food to, volunteer to do laundry or babysit their children so that they can actually get out of the house, etc.  There are many things that you can do to show support.  Take it from me, you get very lonely, depressed and feel isolated going through treatment.

In closing, I just want to say how cancer has changed my life.  It has changed for the better, I don’t want to say it was the best thing that happened to me but it turned out to be one of the most positive things I could ever go through. When you don’t know if you are going to die or not, you realize what’s really important in life: 1) you will become closer to God,  2) don’t sweat the small stuff, if it can be fixed it’s not a big deal 3) everything happens for a reason, so accept it, it will make you a better, stronger person 4) get over yourself, you don’t make the world go around 5) be empathetic to others and love deeply 6) life is good and live it to your fullest 7) really take it in by just sitting quietly by a lake or beach, 8) be thankful for everything you have: your family, friend and co-workers, 9) take the time to live life, 10) take time to relax, meditate or anything that will make you relax.
One thing that I would like for everyone to take from my story is if you feel something isn’t right in your body, go to your doctor and even they miss the call sometimes but keep pushing for answers.  Listen to your gut!

In 2010, it took me 3 times to get in for my mammogram and boy am I glad I did.  If I had put it off until the next year, my fate and diagnosis would not have been good in any way.
One last note, my last day here at QTS will end on October 31st, also my 65th birthday. My thanks to many of you that I have worked with and got to know like family!  You will always be special in my heart!  I’ve worked at QTS for close to 14 years.  I love you all! May God bless you!