Dr. John Williams and the Breast Cancer School for Patients
There aren’t many of us who haven’t been affected by a cancer diagnosis, whether it’s us or someone we love. Even celebrities aren’t immune. Taylor Swift writes about her mother’s cancer journey in her new song “You’ll Get Better Soon.”
“The buttons of my coat were tangled in my hair
in doctor’s office lighting
I didn’t tell you I was scared.”
Hearing that dreaded diagnosis can leave someone reeling, without knowing where to begin or what the best choices are for treatment. The right doctor can make all the difference. Because of his unique philosophy about cancer care, for women diagnosed in our area, that person may very well be Dr. John Williams.
“Why are we not – in the healthcare and medical field – teaching our patients what they need to know to make better decisions about their own care?” says Dr. Williams, a third generation physician who has worked in our community for over 20 years. This is a concept Dr. Williams realized was missing years ago, and he’s made it his life’s goal to fill that gap.
A surgeon at heart, Dr Williams explained his true mission this way: “Something I love more than cutting… sitting across the table from my patients helping them make crucial health decisions for their unique situation.” During the course of his career beginning in general surgery, he gravitated towards breast surgery while caring for breast cancer patients who made a lasting impression on him both personally and professionally. It was while treating these patients that he began to realize the need for educating them to make better decisions and guide their own care.
“It’s about helping people help themselves,” he says, explaining that it’s important that patients be well-informed and deeply involved in both the process and decisions about their care. “It is their right to make their own choices,” he explains, and even if he doesn’t agree with those choices, it is ultimately not up to him. Self-proclaimed ‘too empathetic’ for each of his patients’ personal conditions, he has no regrets about the bonds he has built with those he has come into contact with. It was these connections with his patients that led him to where he is today.
A person sitting across from this distinguished man with twinkly eyes and a boyish smile may have no idea just how many accolades and achievements Dr. Williams has received over the course of his career, many of them just recently. Among the list is Founder of the Novant-UVA Breast Center, a leader in the field of cancer care. He is also the creator of the Breast Cancer School for Patients, and a new appointee to the President’s Cancer Panel.
When you specialize in breast cancer care, people flock to you for advice. Dr. Williams says family and friends would feel empowered, after a quick phone conversation with him, to ask their own doctors what they needed to know. This further cemented his conviction that the medical world doesn’t actually teach patients how to get the best quality care in their own communities.
“This is a missing link in our collective efforts to provide better quality breast cancer care in the United States,” he says. He was determined to change that… and he did.
In 2018, the Breast Cancer School for Patients was launched online and the response was instantaneous. In the first eight weeks, analytics of the site revealed that visitors were actively engaged in its content, with watch times of more than five minutes per view and 150,000 views.
When a person is first diagnosed with breast cancer, he or she often goes straight to Google for more information, but this information is scattered and hard to narrow down. In contrast, the Breast Cancer School for Patients uses a video format to explain each topic in layman’s terms. “What I say in these videos is exactly what I would say to my patients if they were sitting across from me,” Dr. Williams explains. He wanted the nonprofit site to translate the information in a way that everyone and anyone can understand.
In two- to ten-minute video lessons, the school not only gives patients the tools they need, but also provides printable lesson notes and specific questions to ask their doctors about 50 cancer-related topics. There are also courses on each stage of treatment designed to guide patients through each decision they will have to make in the order they will have to make them, from biopsy to surgery, chemotherapy to radiation, hormone therapy and post-treatment care.
“I spent five years learning breast cancer surgery… five years helping to found the NAPBC (National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers) Breast Center at Novant Health… and five years creating the Breast Cancer School for Patients.”
But the goal of creating this school for patients was not only for the field of breast cancer care. Dr. Williams hopes that medical professionals will consider using this concept in other fields – diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and more – so that patients with any diagnosis can feel educated and empowered no matter the situation. It was more than difficult to narrow down such a large concept – “his life’s work” – he says, but it is possible. “I am selling a concept,” he says, “better cancer care for everyone.”
“When you do the right thing, it sometimes results in being rewarded in ways you never thought possible.” he says. He was invited to give a TEDx Tysons talk where he shared for three minutes his thoughts about why online schools for patients will revolutionize patient education. Although his idea wasn’t chosen to move on to the next round, he was asked to participate in the fall as a speaker trainer for the next TEDx Tysons event.
Then in August, Dr. Williams received the official notice from the White House of his appointment as Chair of the President’s Cancer Panel, one of only two appointed advisory boards at the National Institutes of Health. “Cancer is a nonpartisan issue,” he says, and he feels privileged to be the voice for cancer patients and use this avenue to influence and make recommendations for improving outcomes for patients in our nation.
“I spend too much time with my patients; I practice the way I want to; and I feel lucky to have this passion for cancer care,” says Dr. Williams. He credits his wife Christa and his family for always supporting him in his endeavors to make medicine and cancer care better for everyone. With a daughter in college and his son in middle school, it will be interesting to see what kind of changes they make in our world, after having been inspired by a lifetime of watching their dad make a difference.