AUSTIN (KXAN) — An Austin mom has extra to celebrate this Mother’s Day, just months after she successfully completed breast cancer treatment while pregnant with her first child.
Emily Williams celebrated her 40th birthday last March and underwent her first routine mammogram, which came back clear. In May, she learned she was pregnant with her first child, after seven rounds of in vitro fertilization attempts.
But come June 2022, she discovered a lump in her breast. After completing a biopsy, she was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer.
“It’s almost like my happiness turned and went 180 [degrees],” she said. “Can I even keep this baby, after all that we went through? And so it was really — it was devastating to me.”
Williams connected with Dr. Debra Patt, a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology-Austin Central. Patt told Nexstar’s KXAN that pregnancies require oncologists to take a different treatment approach, with some therapies being safe while others must be avoided until after delivery.
“Patients can often safely carry a pregnancy and receive treatment for cancer, and the best way to have the best outcome is to present to their doctor as early as possible to best navigate the complexities that we incur when both pregnancy and cancer occur simultaneously,” Patt said.
Typically, Williams’ treatment would’ve begun with chemotherapy first. Because she was approaching the second trimester of her pregnancy, her team at Texas Oncology began with a single mastectomy.
Post-surgery, Williams’ treatment plan pivoted to chemo, using two options deemed safe for use during pregnancy. She completed chemo two weeks before her scheduled C-section — but her daughter had other plans, with Williams delivering a healthy baby girl just five days after wrapping chemo.
In a beautiful merging of worlds, Williams’ obstetrician and her surgical oncologist were close friends and were out at brunch when Williams’ water broke. Both of them came to help her deliver her daughter.
“It was kind of almost like the two worlds coming together on my delivery day,” she said. “And so, that was just a surreal and amazing experience too, that really made my delivery just an amazing experience.”
Not only was delivering her first child a dream realized post-chemo, but Williams set her sights on another milestone. Having stayed active throughout both chemo and pregnancy, Williams decided to set a new goal for herself: running in the London Marathon.
The accomplishment would mark her eighth marathon and fourth major marathon. In two months’ time — and after undergoing six-and-a-half weeks of radiation, no less — Williams crossed the finish line and earned her medal.
“It was just such an emotional experience. Like, I broke down in tears and was just like, ‘This is the end. I mean, I’m done,'” she said. “It was the perfect way, I think, to wrap up my whole journey.”
Reflecting on the past year of her life, Williams said she wants to continually advocate for people to be proactive and take charge of their health, including routine monthly breast checks and exams. Her experience is living proof, having gone from a clear mammogram to a nearly five-centimeter tumor in just a few months’ time.
“Early detection is really important,” she said. “If there’s anything different, just make sure — even if you don’t think it’s anything — just make sure to go to a doctor just to confirm. Because the sooner you catch it, the easier the treatment will be.”
Patt echoed Williams’ advice, saying women should be diligent and monitor any breast lumps, discoloration, skin changes, nipple discharge or bleeding that might become prevalent.
Women without a family history of breast cancer should begin receiving mammograms at age 40, with Patt advocating for annual checkups. Those with a family history or who have other heightened risks for breast cancer should consult with their doctor about the best screening time and strategy.
For Patt, she said seeing Williams’ progression in the past year and delivery of a healthy, happy baby girl is an inspiration and a reminder to other cancer patients that they, too, can carry a pregnancy to term while battling cancer.
“Emily is an inspiration, and she inspires everyone who touches her,” she said, adding: “All throughout treatment she continued to work, exercise daily, and was joyful. I am sure she was frightened by a lot of this, but she approached it fearlessly. I have such joy seeing her and her daughter thrive. Our team at Texas Oncology and her team at home partnered well to get her what she needed to have a great outcome.”
At the root of Williams’ journey, she said, was a supportive team both in her medical care and behind the scenes. Joining breast cancer support groups and finding a community to rally behind her at her local fitness studio helped give her the strength and courage to see both her treatment, pregnancy and marathon training to the finish line.
“To have a happy, healthy baby after going through all that just astounds me, and I can only hope that we’ll keep advancing our cancer treatments and someday find a cure for cancer.”