TIFTON - The past six years have not been easy for Barbara and Lorenzo Williams. But despite the problems, namely dealing with his-and hers-cancers, they are learning to live life to the fullest.
Williams was diagnosed with aplastic anemia in 1996, a scant two weeks after the couple moved to Tifton. Although he knew he had health problems, he didn't know how serious they were. A routine doctor's visit became extraordinary.
Within a week, he said, doctors told him he had aplastic anemia and hospitalized him. The disease, he said, affects all three blood mechanisms: white cells, platelets and red cells.
The couple threw themselves into discovering information about the disease, including treatment and finding a matching blood donor, which they said would cure his disease. A matching blood donor wasn't found, but his cancer went into and has stayed in remission.
Life should have been good. Instead, about six months later, a daily chore took on monumental importance.
"I was reaching over to tie my shoes and I crushed vertebrae in my back," Mrs. Williams said. She was in pain.
She stayed in pain for three weeks but didn't know about the vertebrae or her broken ribs. Doctor visits didn't provide answers. They told her she was just experiencing muscle spasms.
But the pain wouldn't go away.
Finally, after being in such severe pain that the slightest movement was unbearable, Mrs. Williams went to the emergency room. Doctors took X-rays. They told her that her bones were brittle and resembled those of an 80-year-old woman. At 44, she had the bones of someone almost twice her age.
She stayed in the hospital for about a month, during which time doctors performed numerous tests. They found nothing.
She finally was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a disease that attacks bone marrow, after other tests came back negative. There's no cure for it.
She says the reason doctors had a difficult time diagnosing her illness was because myeloma usually affects older black men.
"When they saw a 44-year-old woman with [the symptoms], they didn't think about the fact that I could have that disease. That's why they didn't test me for it."
Another problem the couple faced was money. Doctors' bills were enormous, she says, and her treatments could have cost around $150,000. They didn't have that. So, they conducted fund raisers and raised about $25,000. The doctors provided additional help: they got together and decided to treat her for free.
Her treatment consisted of high-dose chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. In December 1999, doctors harvested stem cells from her body, removed the cancer, and reinfused the clean cells back into her bones. The several-week-long procedure, along with the chemotherapy, put her cancer in remission.
For a while. The cancer came back in January, after being in remission for a year. Doctors had suggested that recurrence could occur within three to five years.
"It didn't last as long as they hoped it would last, for whatever reason. We never knew where the cancer came from. It wasn't hereditary. It was environmental," Mrs. Williams said.
She'll receive another transplant on Aug. 14. Although she's undergone the procedure before, she's still apprehensive, being fully aware that anything could happen.
Even though the Williamses say they went through the normal emotions - anger and confusion - they appear to be focusing on the positive.
"We don't look at it as if we are bad people," Mr. Williams said. "It just happened and we had no control over it. In our case, we don't drink, we don't smoke. And we got cancer."
And, they have no idea what caused them to get cancer. Both of their diseases are environmental.
"I'd go crazy trying to figure out what happened and how it happened. We've learned to adjust," Mrs. Williams said.
They also are grateful for all the help they've received. Looking back, they felt that they were led to Tifton for a reason.
"People in this town really do care about you," Williams said, adding that when they fir
st moved here, they didn't know anyone in Tifton. But they were quickly enveloped into the community.
"They didn't have to do anything to help us out, but all the people we encountered, and the community at large, really rallied around us."
To contact reporter Marie Arrington, call 382-4321, ext. 206.
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