Warrior Women: Ashley's Story
Cancer doesn't know an age limit.
Imagine cradling your one-year-old baby in your arms after having been diagnosed with breast cancer. Thoughts race through your mind, not just about the journey ahead of yourself, but for your new baby – “What if something happens to me? Will she have to grow up without a mother?”. You try to stay positive but those questions stay in the back of your mind.
Breast cancer doesn’t care if you’re a mother, sister, wife or daughter. And in 2012, Ashley Williams discovered that it doesn’t care if you’re outside of the designated breast cancer screening age. Ashley was only 26 when she discovered an irregular lump in her left breast during a self-examination.
“I wrote it off as having a clogged milk duct since I breastfed my daughter,” said Ashley of Huron. “I knew it had been about 9 months since I stopped breastfeeding, so I was just going to have my OBGYN check it out at my yearly exam.”
Ashley’s doctor checked the lump at her exam and sent her for an ultrasound. When the images came back, the technician told her the doctor would have to discuss what they found with her.
“I saw a small oblong, shadowy, kind of like a football-shaped object on the screen and I knew in my gut what it was,” said Ashley.
The American Cancer Society recommends women get routine breast examines between the ages of 40 to 54. At the young age of 26, Ashley was well under the recommended age range.
“How can someone that’s never been sick, be sick?” asked Ashley. “It’s not genetic. No one in my family has it. I was tested for genetic mutations and stuff because I obviously wanted my daughter to know. So I don’t know where it’s from or why I have it.”
Immediately, Ashley’s care team started running a series of tests to determine what stage and type of her cancer. It was discovered that her type of tumor was triple positive, meaning that it was estrogen receptor positive (ER+), progesterone receptor positive (PgR+), and HER2 positive (HER2+).
She made the decision to have a double mastectomy in October 2012 and begin chemotherapy treatment at University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center at Firelands Regional Medical Center.
“At stage II, they told me if that as long as I took the Tamoxifen and had the double mastectomy I would probably be okay,” she said.
However, in January of 2016, she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer – the cancer had metastasized in her lungs, sternum, iliac crest, lymphoid and brain.
“The first diagnosis is bad enough, but being re-diagnosed is kind of hard to take,” Ashley said.
Since that time, Ashley has had a total of three Gamma Knife surgeries and specialized whole brain radiation.
“I had two seizures in November of 2016. I was on steroids from the Gamma Knifes and that was probably the least friendly person I’ve ever been,” she said. “Now, I finally found a chemo treatment that works and has worked for almost a year. I’m still going to chemo every week and doing what the doctor wants me to do.”
“I know what stage IV means. I know in the end its terminal unless they find a cure,” said Ashley. “It’s taken a long time to accept it because I have a small child, I have a husband, I have family members, and friends. Some don’t want to accept it, but some know that at any minute it could go haywire.”
Ashley also gives a lot of credit to her health care team. “People can explain to you what is going to happen, but you have no idea. Luckily, I had Dr. Laffay, Dr. Surfield and Dr. Gudena that were able to explain pretty much everything to me. This is what to expect. Look out for this and that.”
“After Dr. Gudena left I changed to Dr. Reese. I’ve been with her through most of the bad stuff,” said Ashley. “Dr. Reese has been phenomenal. Always making sure she’s up to date on treatments and everything.”
One key factor that keeps her going is her amazing support system.
“They are checking on me all the time. Do I need anything? How do I feel?” Ashley feels battle breast cancer without a good support system makes everything just a little bit harder. “It’s not fun being in chemo; it’s not fun going through radiation. It’s not fun for your family, your friends. They sit alongside you – they go through it. But ultimately it’s you that’s going through it.”
Some advice Ashley has for recently diagnosed breast cancer patients is to just keep fighting.
“It might your darkest time in your life but you have to have the will and the strength to fight. If you’re not fighting for yourself, think about fighting for your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. It doesn’t matter as long as you fight.”
“[Cancer] doesn’t know an age limit. It can happen and it will happen,” said Ashley. “Make sure that you’re vigilant about checking yourself.”