Williams, who beat Ewing sarcoma with help from San Antonio and Houston medical teams, is going for the gold in Tokyo Paralympics
Jillian Williams, a member of the US sitting volleyball team, strives to make a difference by being different. By overcoming Ewing’s sarcoma, surgery and chemotherapy, she sends a message of hope to others as she competes in the Tokyo Paralympic Games taking place from August 24 to September 5, 2021. Ms. Williams is a patient of the Mays Cancer Center, home of UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson; University Hospital, San Antonio; and the University of Texas at Houston MD Anderson Cancer Center.
SAN ANTONIO, Aug. 19, 2021 /PRNewswire-PRWeb/ — Making a difference by being different. USA Paralympics sitting volleyball star Jillian Williams strives to live by that principle every day, and it’s a motto she’ll carry with her in Tokyo during the 2020 Summer Paralympics which kicks off on August 24.
Williams is a patient of Aaron Sugalski, DO, a pediatric oncologist at the Mays Cancer Center, home of UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center, and of Valerae O. Lewis, MD, an orthopedic oncologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre. Four and a half years since her surgery and last chemotherapy treatment, she remains cancer-free on follow-up scans and has nearly reached the all-important five-year survival milestone.
The bubbly Williams maintained her optimism as she endured more than two dozen therapies administered at University Hospital in San Antonio. The University Hospital is part of University Health, the pediatric cancer clinical partner of the Mays Cancer Center.
“Because most of my treatment was inpatient, I got to know a lot of the doctors who were on call on the weekends, which was nice,” she said.
Williams is from Odem, a small town near Corpus Christi. At 1.75 meters tall, she was “quite tall” for playing the net in volleyball. “I had a really high vertical jump, which was fun, and I was the middle batter on the front row,” she said.
After high school, she enrolled at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin and joined the volleyball team. Life was going well, but she developed severe pain in her left thigh. Maybe it was just a tear in the kneecap, she thought. The pain worsened and tests yielded a troubling diagnosis: Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone and soft tissue cancer that primarily affects children and adolescents.
It was February 2016.
“We found Dr. Sugalski when I was diagnosed, and it was the best thing we could have ever done,” Williams said. “He’s great, and the whole team is with the work they’re doing.”
First a complex operation
When planning her treatment, Dr. Sugalski contacted Dr. Lewis of MD Anderson in Houston, given her multidisciplinary team’s unique expertise in rotational plastic surgery, a surgical procedure to remove the cancer, preserve mobility and provide patients with a better quality of life.
The knee and adjacent parts of the leg are removed to reduce the chance of cancer returning. Then the remaining lower leg is rotated 180 degrees and attached to the upper leg. The foot, also turned, is exactly where the knee was, with the toes pointing back. The ankle acts as a knee joint and the foot fits into a prosthetic leg.
Shortly after surgery, Williams returned to the care of Dr. Sugalski in San Antonio and began chemotherapy for 11 months.
“I would go to the hospital for three days and then be out for a week, and then in for a day and out for a week, and then in for six days and out for a week, and then start over,” she said.
After all her chemotherapy appointments in San Antonio and regular follow-ups with MD Anderson, she rang a ceremonial bell to signal the end of treatment in January 2017. After returning to Texas Lutheran for a semester, she was invited to begin training with the United States National Team in sitting volleyball.
A second life on the field
During the treatment there is time to think, to meditate. Williams read a Sports Illustrated article about the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and one of the women on the US sitting volleyball team also had rotational plastic. “I was surprised because I thought I would never play volleyball again,” Williams said.
She sent a message to the player, who participated in Rio, and learned who to contact about team selection and training. A new dream took shape.
“I remember being in the hospital bed with chemo, and I’d say to my nurses, ‘One day I’m going to play in the Paralympics,'” Williams said.
She entered camp in May 2017 and was assigned to the USA Volleyball A2 program, the national team’s feeder program. “I was on that program for about three months and then was asked to join the national team,” Williams said. “One of the recommendations was to move to Oklahoma to train with them.”
Williams did so and completed his studies at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. Since then, she has competed in every major event, including the Parapan American Games and the recent Golden Nations League tournament in Assen, Netherlands. The team is undefeated this year and is at the top of the world rankings.
“Now I’m going to Tokyo,” she said.
Grateful and grateful
Williams, 24, looks back on the people who helped her get to this point. “I think more than anything, I’m just so grateful,” she said. “I refer patients to Dr. Sugalski, and I refer people to MD Anderson for surgery. Dr. Sugalski and Dr. Lewis, and their teams, saved my life. They supported me and made sure I was healthy enough to to be able to compete and do everything I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Today, in addition to traveling and playing with the US national sitting volleyball team, Williams is a sales representative and clinical specialist at Stryker Corp. She feeds data into robots that help surgeons correctly align replacement knees and hips.
On November 14, 2020, she was married to Kyle Coffee, a firefighter with the Harris County Hazmat Team. They live in Houston. Amid the pandemic, the wedding was held outdoors at her family’s farm in Oakville, between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. “I’ve always said I wanted to get married there, so we did,” she said.
Now Tokyo is calling.
“I’ve seen athletes on the Olympic platforms, gold, silver and bronze,” Williams said. “I’m going to imagine we win gold because we have so much potential to do that. I get emotional when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner play at small tournaments, and I can only imagine what it will be like at the Paralympic podium Knowing that my family is home to watch, that’s just really cool.”
Not many people are diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer being studied at UT Health San Antonio’s Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute. Not many people also opt for rotational plastic.
“I had a blog when I was sick, and it was called Jillian’s Leap Through Cancer, and one of my quotes that I said at the beginning was, ‘I want to make a difference by being different,'” she said.
“I think making a difference by being different is the most important thing I try to live every day.”
Everyone from Mays Cancer Center, University Hospital and MD Anderson wishes you, Jillian Williams, best wishes at the Tokyo Paralympic Games!
Will Sansom, UT Health San Antonio, 210-567-2579, firstname.lastname@example.org
Katrina Burton, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 713-792-8034, email@example.com
SOURCE UT Health San Antonio