Bond built during breast cancer treatment inspires survivor to volunteer
It had been two years since Billa Woollam’s last mammogram, and she knew she was long overdue for one. But it was a strange sensation in her breast that sent her rushing into a clinic for a breast exam in November 2015. The following morning, she was asked to return for a biopsy.
“My doctor’s office called and said I needed to be there within 30 minutes,” Billa recalls. “I knew they weren’t going to do that if there was nothing wrong with me.”
A breast cancer diagnosis
Billa had stage I breast cancer. The day after her diagnosis, she called MD Anderson. Within a week, she was at MD Anderson in Katy -- just minutes from her home -- to meet her radiation oncologist Elizabeth Bloom, M.D., and medical oncologist Nikesh Jasani, M.D. After discussing her treatment options, she opted for a lumpectomy, a less invasive surgery where doctors remove only the tumor and a small margin of healthy breast tissue.
A special bond with her radiation therapy care team
Billa had her lumpectomy on Dec. 8, 2015, and started 20 rounds of radiation therapy few weeks later. The first time she walked into the radiation room, she jokingly asked her radiation technicians to pin a photo of Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watt on the ceiling to distract her during treatment.
“From that moment on, they knew they could joke with me, and we had a fine time enjoying ourselves while I was having my radiation,” says Billa, who found the exchange of jokes eased her through each session.
“We found a reason to laugh during most of my appointments,” she recalls.
When it was time for Billa to ring the bell to mark the end of her treatment, the milestone felt bittersweet. To lighten things up, she dressed up as JJ Watt.
“The girls took photos of me in the costume and a video of me ringing the bell. I was really sad that I wasn’t going to see the girls anymore because in those four weeks we got really close and we became friends,” recalls Billa, who periodically visited MD Anderson in Katy just to see her care team. During one of her last appointments, one of the radiation therapists said, “Why don’t you volunteer?”
Volunteering to support other patients
Billa took the advice and applied to volunteer at MD Anderson in Katy. “Volunteering is one of the ways I can say thank you for saving my life and give back to fellow patients,” she says.
Now, Billa spends her Wednesdays supporting other cancer patients alongside the same clinical staff who helped her through treatment.
“It’s just like one big happy family,” she says. “They all work together, and the way they look after patients is just incredible, so it’s nice to be part of that.”
Billa helps the staff with whatever they need. She also brings patients drinks and snacks, as well as warm blankets to make them feel more comfortable.
“I enjoy bringing in that normality when people are in a frightening situation,” she says. “I know what the patients are feeling because I’ve gone through it.”