Single Mom Hails Cancer in Pregnancy for Saving Her Life After Abuse Ordeal

Most people would see a cancer diagnosis as a life sentence. But for Nia Williams, a young single mom with a difficult past, cancer was just the beginning of a new life journey, that helped her escape the emotional prison left behind by an abusive relationship.

Williams was only 24 years old when she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of breast cancer that only accounts for 10-15 percent of all such cancers in the country, and which usually tends to grow and spread much faster than other types of cancer.

When Williams first felt a lump on her breast, in June 2021, she immediately sought medical help at the local St. Lucie Medical Centre, but because of her young age, she was allegedly denied imaging, and was only offered some bloodwork, before being sent home without any further help.

She told Newsweek: "I tried to get help but nobody would help me, they all sent me home and told me I was too young. By the time I got any help I was 25 and the tumor was much bigger, it was so big that you couldn't see any boobs in my shirt, just a big lump."

Nia Williams was only 24 years old when she found a lump on her breast, but doctors told her she was too young to worry. Soon after, she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Nia Williams

Why Some Young Women Are Denied Screenings

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an organization of doctors and disease experts who make recommendations on how doctors can help patients avoid diseases or find them early, recommends a mammogram every two years for women who are aged between 50 and 74 and are at average risk of breast cancer.

They also suggest women aged 40 to 49 talk to their healthcare provider about when and how often to get a mammogram, saying they should "weigh the benefits and risks of screening tests when deciding whether to begin getting mammograms before age 50."

A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast, that doctors use to check whether a woman has breast cancer. It is to this day the best way to detect cancer early, when it's easier to treat before it is big enough to cause symptoms. Sometimes, it is able to detect a tumor up to three years before it can even be felt.

Approximately one in eight women in the U.S. are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and over 83 percent are diagnosed in women aged 50 years and older, which is also the age group that has the highest mortality rate related to the illness.

Only about nine percent of new breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women younger than 45, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and unfortunately in these cases, the cancer is most likely to be found at a later stage and is often more aggressive and difficult to treat.

Williams' Cancer Diagnosis

Despite what doctors kept telling her, Williams knew her body was not OK, so she trusted her gut feelings and sought help elsewhere. Later in August, two days after turning 25, she was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma Stage two, grade 3 Triple Negative with a BRCA 1 mutation.

By this time, Williams was a single mom of a young girl, with another baby 18 weeks along the way, and aggressive cancer to beat. And as if this wasn't enough, she had nobody close to help her.

"It was 11:58 on August 16, I remember exactly where I was parked at the time. They called me and told me that it was cancer. By the time I got in anywhere to be able to start chemo, the tumor was bigger than my chest, it was very scary," she said.

And it was at that moment that Williams realized she had to get herself back, that she had lost every bit of herself in her former abusive relationship, that the man she once loved so much had taken everything away from her.

"I lost every single part of me that could possibly make me a person when I was in that domestic abusive relationship, and I thought that I would never be able to get myself back because that's what happens to many victims of domestic abuse. I was left trying to find the girl that I was before the domestic abuse, but I just couldn't find myself anymore. I wasn't the same person, didn't like doing the same things, I didn't go anywhere because I was scared.

"But when I got diagnosed with cancer, it saved me, and I believe that God allowed that to happen because he knew that I needed something significant to happen for me to save myself, and the only way I was going to get up and save myself was if something physically happened, where you could see that it was taking me down," she said.

Cancer Treatment During Pregnancy

Because of the severity of her diagnosis, Williams had to start her treatment soon after, which meant, going through chemotherapy while still pregnant.

According to the American Cancer Society, chemotherapy includes some treatments that may damage heart cells and weaken the heart, forcing it to work harder during pregnancy and labor.

Moreover, Dr. Alejandra del Toro, a medical oncologist with GenesisCare in Miami, the same medical facility where Williams found doctors willing to help her, told Newsweek that based on available data, there may be an association of increased risk of low birth weight, intrauterine growth retardation, or prematurity.

She said: "Otherwise, long-term outcomes based on limited data appear to show relatively normal child development after fetal chemo exposure. Chemo is contraindicated in the first trimester. It is the time organogenesis is occurring and major malformations can be expected if chemo is given during this period."

In November, after undergoing four rounds of chemo, Williams, at 32 weeks pregnant, went into labor, and her son Vincenzo was born via emergency C-section, a healthy baby, miraculously not affected by the chemo drugs at all. "I think it gave him superpowers," Williams joked.

Nia Williams was 18 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. At 32 weeks she gave birth to her son via C-section. Nia Williams

Williams' Biggest Challenge As a Single Mom

One of Williams' biggest concerns throughout her journey, as a single mom with no help available, was who would look after her daughter, who was only four years old at the time.

"[At the previous medical center] they wouldn't let my daughter come with me, she was not allowed to come with me, for COVID reasons mostly. I'm a single mom, me and my mom didn't have the relationship that we do now. I really needed help!"

But once she got to the new medical center, in Miami, everything changed, the doctors listened to her, made her feel valued, and allowed her to take her daughter with her, and her son too, after he was born.

Dr. Niraj Mehta, Williams' Radiation Oncologist with GenesisCare, told Newsweek that the medical center's philosophy is to make sure they provide not just physical support, but also mental and emotional support, and so, they understood how important it was for Williams to have her kids present at a time like this: "The word allow was not even in our vocabulary, we looked forward to seeing her kids."

Williams did 30 rounds of radiotherapy with Dr. Mehta, after undergoing chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, and at a time when she was most vulnerable and needed help, she "found family" within the medical team that was treating her.

She said: "I'm very spiritual, and Dr. Mehta did not make me feel weird at all about that. They didn't just allow me to take my kids they wanted to see them. [There] my daughter had her own table there with blocks and coloring papers, and crayons, and the TV. She would sit there and play with her stuff and watch her baby brother, and her baby brother would sit in there quietly with her.

"[Before] they didn't have kids' tables there, so they set this up for Ava; one of the nurses brought her own blocks from home and other stuff for Ava to be able to be happy while she's there while I was getting my radiation."

One of Nia Williams' biggest worries, as a single mom, was who would look after her daughter while she had life-saving treatment. Luckily she found a medical team that helped take care of her kids too. Nia Williams

Williams Is Now Cancer Free and Able to Enjoy Life With her Children

Because she was found to have a BRCA mutation, which other than putting her at very high risk for breast cancer, also subjects her to an increased likelihood of ovarian and uterine cancer, Williams decided to have a hysterectomy done too, to make sure nothing could take her away from her children.

According to the CDC, certain mutations in the BRCA genes make cells more likely to divide and change rapidly, which can lead to cancer. All women have BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but only about one in every 500 women in the United States has a mutation in either her BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.

Having the gene mutation doesn't mean you will get cancer, it just increases the risk of getting it.

After a diagnosis that changed her world, and years of treatment, Williams has now been cancer free for almost a year, and she will only need to take a chemo pill for two more years.

She said: "I learned fast that you have to stay positive, let go of any negative energy, and never lose sight of what you're fighting for," before adding a message to young women who feel ignored as she did before finding her favorite medical team.

"Seek second or third opinions if necessary, trust your instincts. If you don't like their vibes, they might not be the right care team for you. Ask them to do for you what they would want for their own daughter. Your life doesn't just stop because of a cancer diagnosis."