Marliss Williams doesn’t like the phrase “fighting cancer” any more than she likes watching boxing or wrestling on TV. She almost always turns off the TV or goes in another room, and she is quick to say the last four years of her life have been about living with terminal cancer how she can, she said.
She does it with an unending faith and a never-fading smile, her supporters said.
In February 2014, the former Baylor Scott & White nurse was told she had stage 4 pancreatic cancer and was likely to live three months without any treatment. Only 2.7 percent survive five or more years after a diagnosis of metastatic pancreatic cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
But Tuesday at Texas Oncology-Waco, doctors, nurses and family surprised Williams with cupcakes, balloons and stories to mark her 100th chemotherapy treatment and celebrate that her past four CT scans showed no signs of the fatal illness.
“It’s really amazing. I have so many people ask my all the time, ‘Why do you do oncology? Isn’t that depressing?’ ” Williams’ oncologist Dr. Carl Chakmakjian said. “But this is why we do oncology. You can see the joy in her eyes and her family’s eyes, and she’s really a miracle. It’s a very aggressive cancer. The average survival is six to eight months, and that’s why we’re celebrating her life and how wonderful she’s done.”
Williams made the decision not to use the word “fight” almost from the get-go, she said. When she got the call about the diagnosis, it was the only time she and her husband shed tears, she said.
Instead of letting a negative mentality take over, she took the illness as a sign from a higher power to pursue other opportunities beyond her career as a labor and delivery nurse at Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center.
“God works mysteriously. I’m not saying God gave me cancer, I’m just saying he works mysteriously like maybe it was time for me to quit nursing, so I had to go in another direction,” Williams said. “I don’t believe God harms people, I don’t believe in that. I believe he gives you other pathways to go.”
Williams quit nursing about a month after her diagnosis and started chemo treatments every two weeks, she said. She told doctors she did not want to know all the ins and outs of how the cancer was affecting her body, she said.
A year later, Chakmakjian happened to mention Williams was “already living a miracle” to a shadowing intern, and that was the first time Williams had a full grasp on her situation, she said.
Her scans started coming back clear this summer, Williams said. The first time, she blew the results off.
“It’s an incurable disease. Her CAT scans right now don’t really show any evidence of the disease,” Chakmakjian said. “We’re in uncharted territory, and that’s what I’ve talked about with her. Her CAT scans look great, so do we just keep doing what we’re doing or do we take a break? Nobody knows.”
For fear changing her treatment would cause the cancer to return, Williams chose to keep going, he said.
“After the second, the third and the fourth time, oh my God. The third time, I was really bouncing off the walls, and after the fourth time, I was extremely bouncing off the walls and telling everybody,” Williams said of the clear scans. “But Dr. Chak says we don’t know enough about pancreatic cancer, stage 4 especially. We don’t know enough, and if this is working, I’m tolerating this very well. I’m not having any real bad side effects and I might as well just keep going. Why would I stop?”
Almost every time Williams visits for another round, her 89-year-old mother and her husband, Michael, sit beside her to offer support and keep her mind off the chemicals running through her body, she said. She’ll do whatever she can to not talk about cancer if she can avoid it, she said.
“It’s the only way to go. If you don’t have support, I could see you not surviving at all,” Williams said. “You can’t go it by yourself. It’s not just having family and friends. It’s also having God and having your own religion to help support you and guide you through, because there are times when you’ve got to talk to somebody, and God’s always there.”
On the car ride over to the clinic Tuesday, she and her husband spent time talking about the Super Bowl. And her mother, Margaret Dunlap, often spends appointments chatting about their pets, Williams said. She grew up in Waco but now lives in the country between Crawford and Valley Mills. Once, Williams was even lucky enough to sneak a couple newborn kittens into the clinic to watch over while she was treated, she said with a smile.
“I’m just trying to help her,” said Dunlap, whose son also survived a rough bout of bladder cancer at 44. “It’s tough to take, but we do it one day at a time. I go to church an awful lot.”
With a new grandchild born last year, Williams still has plenty to look forward to without thinking about the cancer flaring up again, she said. Her grandson is just about to start walking. She has joined a choir and sings louder on the days she’s feeling at her best, she said. She has also returned to Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest to volunteer in the baby gift shop, she said.
Williams’ ability to continue her life four years after her terminal diagnosis is something Texas Oncology-Waco receptionist Debra Thornton said is a testament to Williams’ strength. The two met 46 years ago, when Williams helped deliver Thornton’s first son, Thornton said.
“All sickness is not death,” Thornton said. “To see her come in every day is encouraging. I work the front desk and to see her come in with a smile on her face, even on the days when she doesn’t feel good, I’m just glad to see her. Her smile is hope, to see her go through it and be so triumphant.”
Her journey is not over, but Williams knows she can keep going as long as she can keep grinning, she said. It helps lessen her stress, and she is able to handle chemotherapy better because those around her share the same mentality, she said.
“Today’s celebration is just awesome,” Williams said. “People need to realize you can live with cancer. You can survive.”