It’s been nearly a year since her proton treatments ended, and Samantha Williams is busy catching up on life. As a fun, vibrant 23 year old in Bedfordshire, she has popped over to Spain, Hungary and the Greek islands with her best mates, in addition to pursuing her career in southeast England.
“I missed out on my summer last year,” Sam says. “My summer was spent with cancer. My friends say, ‘What are you talking about, you were in Prague for eight weeks.’ But it was no summer holiday.”
Back then, Sam was an animal behavior major at Plymouth University, and one final exam away from securing her four-year degree. One last test and she could celebrate her graduation and spend the summer of 2015 with friends on weekend excursions, biking and dining, while actively seeking her dream job at an animal rehabilitation center.
“I was really looking forward to ending uni and starting my life,” Sam recalls.
But Sam’s five-hour train trip back home came days earlier than she had planned. Doctors at Pinehill Hospital in Hitchin finally obtained the test results she had been waiting for. Cancer was found in a lymph node on Sam’s neck.
“I was really panicked straightaway,” she says. “I didn’t know if they were going to tell me, ‘You have a day to live,’ or ‘You have a week to live,’ or ‘You have 10 years to live.’ ”
Her doctors later identified stage three nasopharyngeal carcinoma. They advised a treatment plan that combined chemotherapy with rounds of conventional radiation using intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT).
But IMRT posed far too many risks for Sam to accept her doctors’ advice. “It would go through my face and out the other side,” she says. “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that’s not good for you. There could be hearing loss. There could be brain damage.”
Sam says she didn’t doubt IMRT’s ability to kill her cancer; she was unsure of its effect on her life as a cancer survivor. “I wanted to know about how you were afterwards,” says Sam. “I cared more about the long-term side effects. I found a girl on YouTube who had exactly what I have and she had IMRT and became half-deaf and had developed thyroid disease. I didn’t want that. I just wanted to be a normal person.”
Searching the web, Sam’s mom discovered the benefits of proton therapy and the cancer care services offered at the five-year-old Proton Therapy Center Czech in Prague.
“I’m not a fan of any radiation, really,” Sam admits. “I believe in natural healing. But I couldn’t gamble with my life.” And the way proton therapy works just made sense to her, she says. No exit radiation and minimal spillover radiation assured her the protons would be killing her cancer and not harming the rest of her body. After talking with the doctors and nurses in Prague, Sam says she thought she had a better chance of living that normal life she hoped for.
She remembers thinking: “Do it. And let me get on with my life.”
In early August 2015, Sam moved into an apartment not far from the proton center to begin her cancer care: 38 proton beam treatments and three full days of chemotherapy. The incredible generosity of family, friends and strangers paid for Sam’s care.
She managed to get out twice for dinner in Prague. But for the rest of the time, “I was confined to the flat,” says Sam, not exactly the Prague holiday her friends have teased her about.
As the weeks went by, the chemo and proton treatments took their toll. Sam got very tired. She lost her sense of taste. Her jaw muscles were stiff. Her mouth couldn’t produce much saliva and mouth sores appeared. All of which meant Sam couldn’t eat very much food. “It all tasted awful,” she says. “I really lost my appetite.”
Sam’s weight dropped about 8 kilos or 17 pounds. Her neck also experienced radiation burns, a common occurrence when proton beams enter the body. “But my eyes didn’t get touched; my brain didn’t get touched,” she says.
Sam kept in contact with her friends via FaceTime. Her new boyfriend, too. “He really improved my mental well-being,” Sam says with a laugh.
And that last final exam she had missed? “When they heard I had cancer, they said I could make it up with course work,” says Sam. So, during treatment, I just worked on my laptop and sent it in. And I was able to graduate.”
In late September 2015, Sam completed her treatments at Proton Therapy Center Czech and returned to England the next day. “I was so happy to be home,” she says. “I just straightaway carried on like normal, if I didn’t have anybody in my earhole saying you can’t do this and you can’t do that.
“I just brushed myself off and went on,” continues Sam. “I went scuba diving in Lanzarote. I went to Budapest for my birthday in March and on holiday with my boyfriend in Barcelona in May.”
Sam is working part time as an assistant nurse in an animal hospital and planning her career path for that dream job.
The side effects from her chemotherapy and proton treatments have pretty much subsided. There’s some stuffiness in her ears, which doctors say will return to normal. And she expects her mouth will never produce the saliva it once did. So, a glass of water is always handy when she is eating.
And where better to eat than at a beachside café on the Greek island of Kos. Sam was headed there in August 2016, living and loving life to the fullest.