Healing waters – Judy Williams cope with a second diagnosis of breast cancer

0001Judy Williams has enjoyed a life-long love of the water, whether canoeing in the Boundary Waters or taking a float trip down the Zumbro River. The water has soothed her soul, calmed her mind and helped heal her body.

    So when Williams was diagnosed this past December with breast cancer for the second time and her ailing daughter’s own health worsened, she found it more difficult to make her way to the water—just when she needed it most.

    But now, thanks to the Healing Waters Project, the water has come to her. In late July, Mike Otte, owner of Whitewater Gardens in St. Charles, and a volunteer crew constructed a pondless waterfall in the backyard of Williams’s Rochester home.

In giving we receive

Otte says that he and his volunteers get as much out of this program, now in its sixth year, as the recipients do. “The volunteers come away telling me they feel like they got the gift,” Otte says. “One of my staff told me this year, ‘It’s so rare to spend a day helping someone you’ve not met before—it feels good.’ I think they feel like they are part of something special. Judy’s warmth and generosity are abundantly clear in her devotion to her family and friends. That she loves water and outdoors made this a great fit.”

    Otte launched Healing Waters to create a tranquil waterscape for a woman undergoing breast cancer treatment after one of his own friends was diagnosed with the disease. “We do this as an expression of compassion,” he says. “It’s our way of offering solace and affirming that we truly are all in this together.”

    For Williams, the gentle trickle of the new waterfall instantly allows her to drift away on a healing journey. “It’s really cool to have this in my own backyard here at home,” she says. “I can sit and close my eyes and I can be anywhere I want to be.”

Unexpected challenges

Williams was diagnosed with her first breast cancer in 1994. A year later, while she was still bald from treatment, her husband, Dan, died of a stroke related to a heart condition. A year after that, her family suffered another blow when her daughter, Emily, then 16, was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a debilitating neurological condition.

    When Williams was due for her annual checkup this past December, she did what many do—she delayed it because she was dealing with other life issues, including her daughter’s health. But then she got the diagnosis—she had cancer again, a different type of breast cancer. “After this many years, you think, ‘Oh, it just can’t be,’” Williams recalls.

    Although treatments may have improved in the past two decades, the side effects have been worse this time around, Williams says. She has endured a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She has had seizures and sensory neuropathy, and her hair, nails, eyebrows and even her nose hairs fell out. “It’s much easier to deal with cancer at 38 than at 55,” she says.

Family, friends and a waterfall

Her daughter, her two sons, Ben and Jed, her boyfriend, Gary Athey, and a group of caring friends have provided much-needed support. And now along with them, the Healing Waters waterfall can help Williams cope with the challenges that remain for her and her family.

    “I have been tired this past month,” Williams concedes. “But we try to come out here to enjoy the waterfall and relax as often as possible. When we get up in the morning, we come down here and drink coffee. When we come home from work, we come down here. We’re out here a lot. I just think it’s pretty awesome that there are still people in the world who do kind things like this for others.”

Jennifer M. Gangloff is a managing editor at the Mayo Clinic, and a freelance writer and editor.