Cancer endangers family home; Season of Sharing helps

Having cancer is challenging enough. Having cancer, financial issues and bureaucratic red tape to deal with is a trifecta of suffering.

But that’s what Bruce Williams has faced over the past two years.

The 41-year old Concord father of three, who works the graveyard shift for BART doing track maintenance, knew something was physically wrong in the early months of 2014. He had chest pains and trouble swallowing. He went back and forth to doctors and was told he probably had acid reflux.

Nothing was improving until finally a nurse told his wife, Yvette, that the condition sounded far more serious than acid reflux and that he should make an appointment in gastroenterology.

“Within 72 hours he got in there, and the doctor told me he saw tumors, and that it was possibly cancer,” Yvette Williams said. “I was like, ‘Wait. What?’”

Bruce Williams was diagnosed with stage three esophageal cancer. He immediately went into a treatment program of chemotherapy and radiation. He couldn’t eat, receiving sustenance through a catheter. His weight dropped from 245 pounds to 160. Both he and his wife — who worked in a safe house for abused women — stopped working to focus on his treatment.

Bruce Williams went on disability from his BART job. At the end of the summer, in August, his tumors had shrunk enough to allow for surgery. Surgery revealed the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. In October, he got a remission diagnosis, and by February he was back at work.

“As soon as I was able to eat, I started to feel better,” he said.

Williams, a native of Chicago, came to the Bay Area in the 1990s, when he was in the Navy and was stationed in Alameda. He has a daughter, Tianna — now 20 — from his first marriage, which didn’t last.

A reason to stick around

One night in 1997, at the Sheraton in Concord, he met Yvette Lewis, an Oakland native. Any thoughts he had about returning home to Chicago were quickly shelved. He and Yvette now have two daughters, Corrine, a 14-year-old freshman at Concord High, and Ava, a 7-year-old second-grader.

The girls like to cuddle with their dad on the couch.

“They always make sure Daddy’s OK,” he said.

Any hope that life had returned to normal when he finally went back to work in February was short-lived. Bad news came again during a routine checkup.

“They saw cancer on my liver,” he said.

Again, he had to take time off work to deal with treatments.

This is when Season of Sharing entered the Williams family story. When he applied for disability a second time, he was denied. Not only denied but informed that he owed $6,000 because he was paid by the wrong BART union and had been overpaid during his first bout with cancer.

Yvette Williams tried to unravel the bureaucratic problem. Even after negotiations reduced the amount owed, the union still took 50 percent of his disability check, leaving the family with just $780 a month. While they struggled to resolve the issue, they missed two rent payments.

Season of Sharing stepped in to help the family cover two months’ rent, in July and August.

“It was very painless and extremely professional,” Yvette Williams said. “When you go through something like that, you don’t want to be a burden. But it was a comfortable process.”

Bruce Williams’ health stabilized. He went back to work in September. Yvette has also returned to work at a career center in Oakland and has plans to open her own career center, working with victims of domestic abuse and trafficking and former prisoners to help them find a successful path.

Corrine is on the junior varsity basketball team and is practicing for her holiday chorus performance. Ava is ready for Christmas.

One more challenge

But the Williamses’ struggle isn’t over yet. Cancer has once again surfaced in his body, this time in his lungs. He is scheduled for surgery on Jan. 19. Once again, he will have to take time off of work, probably six to eight weeks.

And he’s pessimistic he’ll get any disability this time.

“They say I still owe them money,” Williams said.

But the Williamses are confident they will win this battle.

“We just have to keep cancer at bay,” Yvette said.


Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. You can follow her on Twitter: @annkillion.

The original story can be found here.