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Fighting to survive: Mother, daughter worry about genetic risks


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Johnson County residents Tracy Williams, left, and Linda Leveridge both overcame their battles with breast cancer. STAFF PHOTO BY JOE SABA
Johnson County residents Tracy Williams, left, and Linda Leveridge both overcame their battles with breast cancer. STAFF PHOTO BY JOE SABA


Two genetic tests and a pair of negative results haven’t convinced a mother and daughter breast cancer doesn’t run in their family.

Between the two of them, Tracy Williams and her mother Linda Leveridge have battled three kinds of breast cancer, and they don’t see how that could be a coincidence.

Leveridge, 59, of Greenwood, had a genetic test done after her second bout with cancer in 2004. Williams, 41, of Whiteland, was tested in 2010 after her own diagnosis. Both tests were negative for the genetic marker. But they still believe there is a genetic link that increases the risk of cancer in their family after Leveridge was diagnosed for the first time at age 47 and Williams at 37. They’ve both had their breasts, ovaries and tubes removed to decrease the chances of cancer returning.

And now Williams worries for her children, especially 13-year-old Caitlyn.

Tracy Williams

Age: 41

Residence: Whiteland

Diagnosis: Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma in the right breast

Treatment: Double mastectomy, chemotherapy, five to 10 years taking medication to manage her estrogen levels. Also had her ovaries and tubes removed as a preventive measure

What cancer taught me: I’m not in control. God’s in control of my life. Whatever happens to me is his to control. Life happens.

How cancer changed me: I try not to be too serious all the time. It taught me to be thankful for everything that I have.

What I would tell someone who was just diagnosed: Everybody handles the process differently. Deal with everything the best you can. Get all the information you can. Do your best to make the best out of it, but it’s a learning experience.

Linda Leveridge

Age: 59

Residence: Greenwood

Diagnosis: Diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in the left breast in April 2002; a second, separate form of cancer appeared in her right breast two years later.

Treatment: Mastectomy and chemotherapy both times

What cancer taught me: Not to take things so seriously. It can always be a lot worse.

How cancer changed me: She tries to look for women who may be battling the disease by spotting them wearing hats or wraps. If she finds them, she offers them a hug. That helped me the first time a lady did that to me. It’s like, you’re not alone.

What I would tell someone who was just diagnosed: Do as your doctor tells you. You will get through this, you can get through this.

“My fear is my daughter is going to come to me at 27 and say, ‘Hey mom, guess what,’” Williams said.

Leveridge was first diagnosed in April 2002, shortly after she found a lump in her left breast. Normally she would procrastinate calling her doctor, but the fear the lump was cancerous made her move fast.

Her cancer was Stage 3, meaning it was aggressive but treatable. She was given the option of a lumpectomy, which would remove only the cancerous tumor, but she chose to have a mastectomy, which would remove the entire breast. She didn’t want to take the chance that any of the cancer would remain.

Surgery was scheduled for three weeks later. Just before the operation, Leveridge saw she made the right call. A scan showed that in that time, the tumor had grown quickly to nearly 3 centimeters in diameter — large enough for her doctors to decide the breast needed to be removed.

“I guess it made me feel better and know the decision to do the mastectomy (was correct). I would have gone in thinking I was going to have my breast and woken up without having it,” she said.

Leveridge was treated with four rounds of chemotherapy after the mastectomy and saw her oncologist every three months. About two years after Leveridge found the lump in her left breast, her oncologist found a lump under Leveridge’s right arm during a routine exam.

“Oh,” her oncologist said.

Leveridge was frantic to know what “oh” meant.

“I waited for her to say something, and it felt like it took years,” Leveridge said.

Leveridge’s doctor suspected she had a different form of breast cancer. She was sent for a biopsy the following day, which confirmed the mass was cancerous, and follow-up tests confirmed it was a different kind of breast cancer.

Williams was at her mother’s side during her first bout with cancer, going with her to doctor appointments and finding out as much as she could about the disease her mother was fighting. Williams knew because of her mother’s diagnosis that she was at risk for the disease. She started receiving annual mammograms at 35 but wasn’t worried.

In February 2010, Williams was showering when she found a lump in her right breast. She did a self-exam and thought the lump might disappear in a month or so. When it didn’t, she saw her doctor and was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma.

Williams was scared, mostly for her husband and four children. She remembered what her mother went through and wasn’t sure how her family would deal with her going through surgery and chemotherapy.

“My kids still need me; my husband still needs me; my family still needs me around,” she said.

Williams’ youngest children, Nathaniel and Caitlyn, were in first and fourth grade at the time. At first she didn’t want to tell them about the diagnosis. She had been able to handle her mother’s diagnosis, but she was an adult.

She worried that to her children the word “cancer” would mean “death.”

But she also knew that Caitlyn had seen her grandmother survive breast cancer. So Williams and her husband, Dale, decided to tell their kids what was happening.

Because of her family history, Williams’ doctors recommended removing both breasts. She and her husband told the children that their mom was going to have surgery so that she wouldn’t be sick anymore. Williams also underwent chemo, and she explained to the kids that she would lose her hair and have times where she would be very tired.

She called their teachers and school counselors to tell them what was happening. so they would always have someone they could talk to if they were feeling overwhelmed.

“We were Team Williams. We were going to get through this together. And we were going to be completely honest with them,” she said.

Williams is still taking the medication Femara to reduce the risk of any recurrence. She and Leveridge both also had their ovaries and tubes removed after their doctor told them they were at a higher risk for ovarian cancer, which can be difficult to diagnose.

“I can’t get (cancer) in something that’s not there. And I sure didn’t want to go through what she did,” Williams said.

Both Williams and Leveridge are cancer-free. They want some way of knowing that others in their family won’t be diagnosed with the disease, but they know that’s a guarantee no one can give them, despite what the genetic tests say.

“I don’t ever want to see my daughter go through what mom and I went through,” Williams said.

“Because it’s much harder to see (your) child go through it,” Leveridge said.

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