What was your first experience with Breast Cancer?
My wife Beth was nursing our newborn daughter Maddie and was pregnant with our son Mac. She said: “Jim, feel this lump. What do you think it is?” I touched it and I was immediately worried.
We decided to talk first to her obstetrician Dr. Fitzhue about it. He was always friendly and happy in other appointments, but became deadly serious after he felt the lump. He referred her to a breast cancer surgical specialist for treatment.
Beth decided on Harry Bear, a surgeon who specialized in breast cancer. At one point she had 1.7 centimeter lesion, which means she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. The question at the time was, because she was pregnant, how much treatment could they give her during gestation? There wasn’t much data, it was a new thing to be pregnant during treatment and still carry a baby to term. But they said the placenta would be a barrier to the chemo.
They did a modified radical mastectomy, which removed the lesion and the lymph nodes in her armpits. After the surgery they still needed to do chemotherapy and Beth was continuing to research her options. Beth had figured out there wasn’t much research for breast cancer in pregnant women and she wanted to go public to help other women who may have the same diagnosis . She connected with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and they did an article about her struggle to help raise awareness.
About the same time, Ted Kopple’s daughter was searching for stories about babies and had found the Richmond Times article. That’s how ABC got involved. They called and said they would like to do a 20/20 piece, and flew out to spend the weekend doing a story. She was due to be induced on Monday morning and she did a full interview with them. Then 48 Hours did an episode on Medical Miracles on her. The big medical issue was that if the chemo got through the placenta to the fetus, the baby would be born without hair. The particular type of chemo she was on was called “Red Devil” because it is so strong, and because it causes hair loss.
When our son Mac was born, he had a full head of red hair. This was such great news for us because it meant he hadn’t been harmed by the chemo. And it had lasting impact for other pregnant women who didn’t have many stories to allay fears about being treated with chemotherapy while pregnant.
Beth really became a poster child of breast cancer. She had always volunteered in town and she got involved with the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation.
Beth made it 10 years after her diagnosis of Invasive ductal carcinoma. She was 33 when she was first diagnosed, and just 42 when she passed. If you make it 5 years past chemo you are considered “in remission,” but in 4 and a half years it moved to liver and brain. She continued to fight and had brain surgery. The surgeon said he pulled out a node the size of an apricot. After the chemo stopped working, they would do radiation. Every time a new node would pop up, they would radiate it. They did that a lot, and it took a lot out of her. Eventually we stopped the radiation and moved her to hospice.
Beth died Nov. 6, 2006.
What was the view of breast cancer when you first got the diagnosis?
There wasn’t a lot of data on pregnant women and breast cancer. At the time it wasn’t something that often struck women of childbearing ages, and all the data was with older women. One reason it is rare is because a pregnant woman has 600% of the hormones of a normal women. They call that being hormone receptor positive because of the pregnancy.
How has awareness changed since then?
For pregnant women, there still doesn’t seem to be as much awareness, but for breast cancer generally awareness has really increased. The NFL is dressing their players and referees. For many years, the Komen Foundation did a good job with the pink ribbon campaign. But research on pregnant women is still lacking.
Tell me about the Williams Field of Dreams Foundation? How did it come about? What are its goals?
When you know you are going to die, you prepare. Ethereally, we all do, but when you have 6 months to live it is something more concrete. Near the end Beth was at her worse, but she still knew the importance of preparing. I asked her, “Do you want flowers? What do you want to do?”
She was very thoughtful and didn’t want people to waste money on flowers. We looked at what was important in our lives, and at that time, our children were all in elementary school. She decided that she wanted to leave behind something that would benefit our children, and the families who had supported us during this time by rebuilding the football field at Evergreen Elementary in Midlothian. She was active with Evergreen. All of our children were involved there — our daughter cheered, and our two sons played football.
There was an Evergreen Association that had been working on the field because the field wasn’t in good condition at the time. So when I wrote the obituary I added something about how gifts could be made for this purpose. People were so generous, so after she died, we used the donations to rebuild football fields in Chesterfield County. We also raised money for the foundation by auctioning off her mustang. We donated all the money for the rebuild at the Watkins Annex. The cost was more than we could raise alone, so they combined it with a retail store’s donation, and the county’s support. They now use the field for football, lacrosse, and soccer. The field also has viewing stations. The practice field has lights so the team can practice after dark.
2017 is the 10 year anniversary of losing Beth. The purpose was originally to rebuild football fields, but now there are plenty. Her legacy is continuing, and now the program buys pink jerseys for different teams each year, like Midlothian HS and the City of Hopewell team. These jerseys continue to support breast cancer research and Beth’s legacy.
This year, the foundation is also working to put up a small monument or bench to commemorate the efforts of Beth to improve people’s lives.
People can still make donations to the foundation by sending gifts made out to the:
Beth Williams Field of Dreams Foundation
PO Box 32
Midlothian, VA 23114
C. James Williams, III is a Principal Attorney in the Virginia Personal Injury Law Firm, Burnett & Williams. He has offices in Richmond, Midlothian, and Hopewell.