Originally created 01/01/02

A celebration of life



As the ball dropped on New Year's Eve, people celebrated for different reasons - the end of a tragic year, the start of something promising and new.

Brian Williams celebrated the simple things, such as getting back to school in North Carolina and spending time with his new bride.

"I just want to go back to Durham and try to get back into a normal state (of mind)," Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Williams, 26, is a graduate of Westside High School in Augusta. He has faced many life-threatening health challenges. He was diagnosed with a heart disease as an infant; had a heart transplant and was diagnosed with cancer in 1990, when he was 14; had the cancer recur in 1996; had hip-replacement surgery in 2000; and had another bout with cancer last year.

After each episode, he eagerly gets back to his daily routines - the things that make him feel normal.

"I just want to try to have a normal, married life. The whole time we've been married, we've just had a couple of weeks in our house," Mr. Williams said."Once you have a plan, you start focusing on that."

Early troubles Mr. Williams' health woes began when he was diagnosed with ideopathic cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart that reduces blood flow through the body, as an infant. With the help of medications, he had a normal, active childhood, but in April 1990 his heart began to fail. He was 14.

At the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Presbyterian University Hospital, Mr. Williams had a device implanted in his abdomen to help his heart function until he could get a heart transplant.

During the transplant surgery, the surgeons found a tumor. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease.

"As soon as I could stand, even hunch-backed, I had to begin radiation treatment," Mr. Williams said. "I was fortunate that they didn't know about the cancer first; if they had known, I wouldn't have been a candidate for the transplant."

Mr. Williams no longer takes anti-rejection medications for his heart because they posed risks, given his history with cancer, and weaken his immune system.

"They decided that I had a higher risk from cancer than rejecting the heart," he said.

Between the anti-rejection medication and the repeated chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Mr. Williams body is susceptible to further complications.

He also takes pain medication every day.

"I have severe peripheral neuropathy caused by some chemo drugs," he said. "Really, since 1994, I have been on some kind of pain medication."

Cancer returns In May, 10 days before Mr. Williams was to wed his high school sweetheart, Jenny Snead, he was diagnosed with recurrent lymphoma.

"It was in my colon, large intestines, cecum and small intestine," Mr. Williams said. "A grapefruit-sized tumor had grown outside the intestine and had started pushing on my intestines."

The couple went ahead with the wedding but put off the honeymoon. Instead, Mr. Williams had the tumor removed, which also required removal of part of his small intestine, cecum and one-third of his large intestine.

This cancer was serious: It had occurred while he was receiving radiation treatment for an earlier cancer. There were additional risks because chemotherapy and radiation treatments from previous cancer episodes had weakened Mr. Williams' body and immune system.

"At this point things were really very critical," he said.

After much debate from specialists over treatment options, they treated him with modified Eshap chemotherapy, which he received from September through November. That was followed in December with four treatments of monoclonal antibody, Rituxin.

Doctors retrieved and froze stem cells from Mr. Williams in October but decided to hold off on a stem cell transplant and monitor him for any tumor regrowth.

"Right now there's no sign of cancer," Mrs. Williams said.

"You just think every time, this is the last big setback."

The road ahead What kept the couple going through the most recent bout with cancer is the same thing that has kept them going for the past 10 years.

"You need to envision yourself in the future," Mr. Williams said. "That gives you something to work toward."

"He believes that God has a hand in this; we both do," Mrs. Williams said. "If you try to understand why these things happened, it's unfathomable."

Instead of asking why, Mr. and Mrs. Williams keep looking ahead.

The couple plans to have a family, "two girls and a boy," Mr. Williams said.

For now, Mr. Williams is looking forward to getting back to his classes at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is working on a master's degree in hospital administration and health policy.

"I am comfortable in the hospital," Mr. Williams explained. "I know that sounds weird, but that's where I am comfortable. That's why I went into hospital administration."

Reach Lisa M. Lohr at (706) 823-3332 or lisalohr@augustachronicle.com