Thursday, May 8, 2003

She turned survival into strength

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Award recipient Diane Williams (left) looks over a collection of photos with Suzy Bailey.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
To Diane Williams, the diagnosis was a death sentence.

Breast cancer.

The married mother of four boys tried to put up a brave front. She went to work each day, came home, ate dinner, then climbed into bed. Her family thought chemotherapy was making her tired. She didn't want them to know she had spiraled into a deep depression, that she was mentally shutting down.

Nighttime was the worst. Alone with her thoughts and fears, awash in self pity, she was sure she would die. She began planning her own funeral.

The Bridgetown woman now believes God had another plan. She is 55. She has been cancer-free for eight years. And Wednesday night, she was among the recipients of the first Joslin Haggart Yeiser Unsung Hero Awards from Cancer Family Care, a local agency that provides counseling to cancer patients and their families.


A Wellness Community support group for newly diagnosed cancer patients helped Diane immensely. She still meets monthly with four women she befriended.

But she wished some things could have been done differently. She would have allowed friends and family to attend sessions with their sick loved ones. And, she would have incorporated prayer into meetings.

In January 1997, with her treatments completed and depression loosening its grip, Diane received permission from her pastor to start such a support group at her Bridgetown church, Our Lady of Visitation, where she is business manager. Although based at a Catholic church, the group welcomes people of any faith. There are about 25 members. They share information, and Diane occasionally invites outside speakers.

Cancer Family Care presented its Unsung Hero Awards Wednesday at the Metropolitan Club in Covington.

The agency, which provides counseling to patients and their families, named the awards in honor of Joslin Haggart Yeiser, who died of cancer. Her husband, Eric B. Yeiser of Indian Hill, is president of the Hayfield Foundation, which sponsors the awards.

Diane Williams received the caregiver award. Other winners:

• Patient award: Alyssa Bozicevich, a graduate student at Ohio State who grew up in Anderson Township. She has continued her studies despite battling Hodgkin's lymphoma.

• Oncology professional award: Dr. Andrew Lowy, chief of the division of surgical oncology in the University of Cincinnati Department of Surgery; and Debbie Soldano, clinical nurse manager in the UC Department of Surgery, division of surgical oncology.

• Child patient special award: Zachary Felder, 11, of Indian Hill, cited for his bravery in battling leukemia.

• Child caregiver special award: Morio and Marie Cathey of Avondale. Morio, who is 10, helps care for his grandmother, Marie, who has breast cancer.

In 2000, one of those speakers was Amy Malcom, a licensed social worker with Cancer Family Care. She was impressed by the warm welcome and sense of belonging. She had a client, a woman in her early 30s who yearned for the support of a faith-based community. But the woman had no car, no way to make the 20-minute drive each month from her Price Hill apartment to the Bridgetown church.

Diane and her husband, Chris, offered to pick up the woman, who suffered from an advanced form of breast cancer. Her name was Christine Bailey.

Christine began attending the support group in 2001. Often, her 8-year-old daughter, Suzy, came along.

Diane saw a childlike innocence in Christine. She had lost her mother to cancer when she was 9. She had little in the way of support from friends or family. She and Suzy lived in a low-income apartment building populated with mostly elderly residents. She rode Metro buses to her cancer treatments.

As Diane got to know the mother and daughter, she sometimes invited them to her home for dinner. She also introduced Christine to her church's prayer group.

Diane noticed that Christine often was weak, so she began driving her to her weekly chemotherapy treatments; or if Diane was busy, a member of the prayer group took her. Some days, those appointments stretched for hours. Diane would fetch Christine's lunch, and help her make a list of questions for the doctor.

She noticed, too, that Christine often was dehydrated when she picked her up. So Diane began bringing juice. And then, she started going to the grocery to make sure Christine's apartment was stocked with fruits, vegetables and easy-to-prepare meals.

Diane and Chris, a Procter & Gamble manager, also began taking Christine and Suzy on outings: to Krohn Conservatory, to parks, to lunch. They saw movies together, went ice skating. Diane always brought a camera along.

But when Christine and Suzy were home alone in their two-room apartment, the hours dragged for the little girl. Christine's medication made her sleep. So Diane asked her pastor about getting them cable television. The parish paid for it. On her own, Diane bought Suzy a PlayStation.

Christine and Suzy received more gifts at Christmas 2001 as members of the Visitation parish, and those in the cancer support group, rallied around them.

Christine's condition was worsening, however. By spring 2002, she needed pain pills regularly.

Diane learned that Christine, a Catholic, had a wish: that Suzy receive First Communion on Easter weekend. The girl was getting religious instruction at Price Hill's Holy Family Church, where Christine once had been a member.

Diane helped make the First Communion happen. She bought Christine and Suzy new outfits, and paid to have their hair done. Then she picked them up and brought them to Holy Family's Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday.

Never had Diane seen Christine smile as much as she did that evening. She was radiant. And proud.

The cancer, though, continued to weaken Christine. At Diane's house one day in summer 2002, she fell on a step and couldn't get up. Diane realized it would no longer be possible for her friend to stay in an apartment.

Diane offered to bring Christine into her home until arrangements with a nursing home could be made. A grateful Christine spent two weeks with the Williamses. Sometimes, Diane's mother, who has lung cancer and also lives in the home, helped care for her.

Diane would have taken in Suzy, too, but the girl was staying with an aunt.

The transition to a nursing home wasn't easy for Christine, but Diane helped by visiting every day until her friend became comfortable.

Suzy came on weekends, and enjoyed pushing her mother's wheelchair down the halls.

In late July, Diane invited the cancer support group to her home for a picnic. Christine, though weak, attended. She and another member had a surprise for their host: a homemade Caring and Sharing Award.

"You are truly a blessing," says the framed certificate, which hangs in Diane's office. "May God multiply the goodness you have sown."

About six weeks later, Diane urged Christine to agree to hospice care. Diane visited daily after that, as her friend slipped in and out of consciousness.

Christine died on Thursday, Sept. 12, in the middle of the night. She was 35 years old.

Diane made arrangements for a funeral Mass at Holy Family Church, where Suzy had received First Communion. Amy Malcom says it was "an absolutely beautiful Mass, everything Christine would have wanted." Malcom had seen firsthand the bond Diane created with Christine.

"More than anything, Diane was her mother during the end of her life. Diane did so many of the things you think a mother would do, if a mother had a daughter who was dying."


One day last week, Diane arranged to pick Suzy up after school. The girl turned 10 years old in January. She and Diane had dinner and saw a movie. But before that, they spent some time looking at several dozen photos. Diane had mounted them on a board and presented them to Suzy after her mother's death.

Some of the pictures had been taken by Diane or her husband when they took Christine and Suzy on outings. That was always Diane's plan: to create for Suzy lasting memories of her mother.

"I look at them every night," Suzy said, her eyes glancing from picture to picture. Before going to sleep, she said, she focuses on just one, and whispers, "Goodnight, Mom."


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