CAMBRIDGE — Until two weeks ago, Kimberly Williams worked as a CNA at Washington Center, scraping up just enough money to support her family, and spent weekends enjoying the outdoors.
Her job as a certified nursing assistant didn’t pay enough for health insurance, but it supported her, her husband and her 17-year-old son. She loved her co-workers and her job. She had time to spend with her family. It was enough.
Then she got a cold, or so it seemed. It got worse and worse. Her doctor said she probably had the flu.
“My head was pounding. I couldn’t even keep down water. I couldn’t drive, I kept getting dizzy,” she said.
Her sister drove her to Saratoga Hospital, where Williams figured she would get IV fluids for dehydration.
Instead, they did a CT scan. She had brain tumors pressing on her cerebellum. She was rushed to Albany Medical Center Hospital, where she had emergency surgery the next day. They told her that if she had waited two more days, she would have died.
But there was worse news to come.
The mother had smoked for 27 years. Her son had been begging her to stop, pointing to TV ads of smokers struggling to breathe. She finally quit seven months ago.
It was too late. Doctors discovered the brain tumors came from her lungs. They diagnosed her with stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to several locations in her body.
“I was blindsided,” she said.
She is 42 years old.
Her co-workers have started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for her medical expenses. She was stunned by the support — her employer, Centers Health Care, even posted the campaign on all 47 Centers Facebook pages and asked the local news media to write about it.
“I’ve been so blessed,” she said. “My work, the people there are amazing. It’s more than what this woman deserves.”
She knows the prognosis is not good. Stage 4 lung cancer has a median survival rate of eight to 10 months. Once it spreads to the brain, life expectancy drops to an average of five months.
However, 10% to 20% of patients with metastasized lung cancer live for two years or more.
Williams is more worried about her son than she is about her health.
“That boy is everything to me,” she said. “If I can watch my son graduate and maybe steal some more time afterward, I’ll take it.”
He is a junior at Cambridge Junior-Senior High School.
She’s fighting to stay alive as long as possible for him.
“He’s scared. He wants his mother alive,” she said.
She can’t really understand why the community is organizing to help her in her fight.
“I’m just a simple woman,” she said. “I just worked hard and took care of my son. I’m no one special.”
She told The Post-Star not to even write about the GoFundMe campaign.
“Don’t make it about that. Tell people to quit smoking,” she said.
Although about 20% of lung cancer is not caused by smoking, smoking is the most common cause. So she blames herself for her disease.
“When I started smoking, we didn’t think of things like that,” she said of cancer.
She started smoking in 1991.
In 1957, Surgeon General Leroy Burney issued the first statement warning people that smoking caused lung cancer. By 1989, the surgeons general were issuing regular reports on the dangers of smoking, with the 1989 report saying that smoking was responsible for one in every six deaths in the United States.
But as late as 1994, the heads of the major U.S. tobacco companies testified before Congress that the evidence of lung cancer was “not conclusive.” They also said that tobacco was not addictive, but that they would prefer their children did not smoke. Then a cache of internal documents from a tobacco company was given anonymously to the University of California at San Francisco. Those memos showed that companies had done their own scientific studies and knew their products were addictive and deadly.
Currently, about 14% of the adults in the United States smoke, and smoking causes about 20% of all deaths in the country, according to the CDC.
That’s the message Williams wants to get out.
She still has a sense of humor, saying she thought she was safe when she quit smoking last year.
“That worked out well,” she said wryly.
But she never felt a symptom of the disease. She wants other smokers to know that they, too, might not know they have lung cancer until it’s too late.
“I’m a healthy woman,” she said. “I hike, I fish, I camp. I didn’t have any signs — I didn’t use an inhaler, I didn’t have COPD. It was a shock.”
When her son would point out the images of women struggling to breathe in anti-smoking ads, she dismissed them.
“Yeah, yeah, I won’t end up like that woman, don’t worry,” she said.
Now she’s awaiting consultations with a battery of doctors on how to attack the many cancer cells in her body.
“I will continue to smile and fight for as long as I can,” she said. “I just want to thank everyone in my community, family and friends for all they have done and continue to do for me and my family. I am beyond grateful.”