TAMPA, Fla. - One year ago, a Seminole Heights woman was living an active life as a licensed massage therapist, business owner, and mom to a toddler. Then, a terminal brain tumor diagnosis changed everything.
But even in a fight for her life, Caroline Williams hasn't lost her passion for helping and healing others. She's sharing her journey publicly – the ups, downs, and lessons in-between, hoping it helps fellow warriors know that they're not alone.
Williams was teaching a Thai massage class last March when the words she knew by heart suddenly wouldn’t come.
"The words were just really fumbling. Everything came out as a tongue twister," Williams said.
At age 37, she'd begun having trouble speaking, writing and texting. With a toddler and another baby on the way, she said, "I thought it was pregnancy brain."
Williams in a hospital bed and after she lost her hair.
But this was different. Her sister, a nurse, urged her to go to the hospital.
"The next thing I know, they come up, and they're like, you have this mass on your brain right at your language center. And it was very big," Williams said.
She underwent emergency surgery, which revealed glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of brain tumor that has no cure.
"It was the day everything collapsed, you know, in our family and our world," Williams said.
At 20 weeks pregnant, with her daughter Lilly and husband Jason by her side, they faced a devastating crossroads.
Williams was diagnosed when she was 20-weeks pregnant.
"The first thing I had to do was make the worst decision," Williams said. "I had to schedule a termination in order to move on with my treatments."
Then came six weeks of radiation, chemotherapy pills, more surgery and six months of maintenance chemotherapy.
"I just wanted to get home to my baby," Williams said.
It's a lot to endure and a lot to explain to a little girl who loves her mama.
"I call this my cancer booboo to distinguish it from other booboos, like, 'this is mommy's cancer booboo,'" Williams explained. "You don't have one of these, and you can't get one of these right now."
Williams after she lost her hair to treatment.
"When I think about Caroline, what comes to my mind is a very tough situation and equally tough tumor," said Dr. Tulika Ranjan, the director of Neuro-Oncology at Tampa General Hospital's Cancer Institute.
Dr. Ranjan is Caroline's doctor. She and her team are determined to figure out what makes these tumors so resistant and fast-growing.
"We do not have a cure for it yet," Ranjan said. "With the treatment, we are able to control it."
At TGH's newly-established Neuro-Oncology program, they're trying cutting-edge clinical trials and new treatments.
"We already have the GammaTile trial, which is a highly-advanced radiation-based treatment," Ranjan said.
Brain tumor scan.
But funding is desperately needed for research, so more life-prolonging ideas get into trials and eventually, to patients like Caroline
"She's a survivor and she's a fighter," said Ranjan. "Her disease is in remission, there's no evidence of the tumor on the MRI, but we are following her closely with an every other month scan."
"Just staying positive and hoping that each scan keeps coming back looking good," Williams said.
Caroline shares personal details of her journey on Instagram, the heavy days, the lighter moments and messages of perseverance.
"I wanted to put that out there and to give people... you are not alone. I went through this, too," Williams said.
Williams showed the process of hair loss following radiation treatment.
She talks about how her hair looked after radiation and how it feels being diagnosed as a mom.
"Anything I feel like would have helped me, I try to share," Williams said.
She's opening her heart to fellow patients, families, and caregivers navigating an uncertain path, helping them know they never walk alone.
"Hang in there. Find a community," Williams said. "Talk to as many doctors as you can and, you know, enjoy every single day. Don't give up."
Williams shares her story on Instagram.
March 18, exactly one year to the day since she checked herself into the ER, Caroline will speak again. She’ll share her story at the American Brain Tumor Association's Breakthrough for Brain Tumors 5K at Tampa's Al Lopez Park.
"I really just want to try to retrain those pathways and speak again and just be so grateful that I am speaking at all because I was kind of worried I wouldn't be at some point," Williams said.
Dr. Ranjan will be there, too.
"It's more about two things: Motivate people and inspire people. Life is worth living and let's fight. And at the same time, trying to focus on clinical trials with whatever fundraising ABTA gets," Ranjan said.
To register for the 5K and learn more about ABTA visit www.abta.org/get-involved/bt5k.