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Community Steps Up to Support Pancreatic Cancer Survivor

Kellie Williams SOH

Pancreatic cancer survivor Kellie Williams, 40, says fate brought her to Zumbrota, Minnesota, just 25 miles from Mayo Clinic, a year before her diagnosis. In 2010, she and her husband moved their 4 children from Gary, Indiana to get away from crime. “The streets are not going to take my kids,” she said.

They left behind their home, their cars, and their jobs, and moved from shelter to shelter for a year before they found new jobs and made a new home for themselves. They both now work in the cafeteria at their children’s school.

Another twist of fate brought Williams to the hospital while her cancer was still early enough to treat. In September 2012, she was at a gas station when she began having vision problems and needed help. A gas station employee recognized signs of diabetes and even had a testing kit with her. She tested Williams’ blood-sugar level on the spot, and the readings were so high she advised Williams to go to the emergency room right away.

Doctors at the emergency room diagnosed Williams with diabetes and also noticed evidence of jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, which can indicate a serious medical condition. She underwent several tests including an ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatogram). This test uses x-rays and a long, lighted scope passed down through the stomach and intestines to examine the pancreas, gallbladder, and other organs. Doctors found a tumor that turned out to be stage IIB pancreatic cancer. She would be treated with surgery and chemotherapy over the next 9 months.

Williams said if she had not moved to Zumbrota, she would not have had access to the kind of high quality treatment she received: “To be a person with no money and no resources and be able to get the best care possible is the best blessing. It’s as good as life to me. I never thought I was that special of a person to have something that wonderful happen to me.”

The rigors of treatment

Williams’ surgery, called a Whipple procedure, removed part of her pancreas and small intestine, her gallbladder, and 4 lymph nodes. Although the surgery saved her life, it caused permanent changes to her digestive process. The pancreas makes insulin and other hormones that help maintain blood sugar levels, as well as enzymes that help digest foods. Without it, she has to take enzyme pills when she eats that help her digestion. In the months following the surgery, Williams, who is just under 5 feet tall, lost 85 pounds, almost half her weight.

She received regular infusions of a chemotherapy drug called 5-FU. Every other week for 9 months, she spent 6 hours in the hospital then continued treatment for 72 hours at home with an IV pump. “Chemo was the worst part,” said Williams. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” Among the side effects she endured were pain, weakness, hair loss, nausea, darkening of the skin, diarrhea, insomnia, and memory problems.

“The memory loss makes me feel like I’m very slow,” said Williams. “I’ve always been upbeat, on point, able to manage and multi-task, and now I get stuck in my thoughts. I’m always staring off in space, forgetting what I started. I’m not smart anymore. I’m used to flowing and now I don’t have any type of flow on any level.”

The kindness of strangers

"I'm surrounded by strangers who showed me so much love it made me want to give back in ways I never thought I would."

Kellie Williams

When Williams and her family moved to Zumbrota, they had some trouble fitting in at first. “I’m black and ended up in a town with no black people,” said Williams. “That made it harder.” But when Williams got sick, her relationship with the community changed.

“People stepped up,” said Williams. “All these people I thought were prejudiced fed my family for an entire month. When you think you are so hated, and then all these people stepped up, it blew my heart away.”

Williams says every day during her treatment someone brought hot food to her door. Her family had no car, so people from the school and the community drove her to and from chemotherapy treatments. Her children were supplied with things they needed including basketball shoes, contact lenses, and winter coats. And when she lost so much weight she could no longer wear her own clothes, people donated clothes in her new size.

“Everything is so perfect, it’s storybook,” said Williams. “Some days I wake up and ask God, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ I’m surrounded by strangers who show me so much love it made me want to give back in ways I never thought I would.”

Looking ahead

After 9 months of chemotherapy, Williams underwent scans and doctors found no evidence of cancer in her body. A check-up last month again showed no evidence of cancer. “I am very scared of recurrence,” she says, “but positive thinking helps me overcome my fears... sometimes.”

She found hope through stories about cancer survivors on the American Cancer Society website. “Those Stories of Hope from American Cancer Society were the only things that gave me inspiration,” she said. “Reading about what someone else went through made me think I could do this. It honest to God gave me hope to see some people that made it. To know somebody made it gives you the feeling like, ‘I can do it too.’”

She read about lifestyle changes – especially healthier eating – that some survivors made after their diagnosis, and she tried it too. Today she eats more fresh fruits and vegetables and less red meat. She no longer eats processed food, fast food, or refined sugar. As a bonus, her family is eating better too. “They have no choice,” she says, “because I’m the one who cooks.”

Williams is currently working on a project to make wigs and give them away to people who’ve lost their hair during cancer treatment. But she says she’ll do anything. “I’m going to find something to do because of what others did for me that I didn’t think possible. I just want to help people.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Due to the impact of COVID-19 on American Cancer Society resources, we are no longer able to review new submissions for Stories of Hope.