Three-Time Cancer Survivor Gives Back to Cancer Patients

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Left: Jan Williams during treatment. Right: Surfing for the first time on a family vacation, just after finishing chemo.

A journey consisting of three different cancer diagnoses, hospital visits, loving ward members, raising a family, and 12 years of teaching theatre led Jan Williams to her future of helping others: the Hope Box Theatre.

Doctors first diagnosed Williams with melanoma cancer when she was 28 years old and living in San Diego, California. Williams was in the middle of her second pregnancy when she went under the knife so doctors could remove some lymph nodes. Despite this unexpected hurdle, Williams was able to give birth to a healthy baby boy without any complications. Even with no cure for cancer, Williams’ melanoma had gone into remission and she and her family thought the worst was behind them.

About two years later, to the date, Williams went in to the hospital again to discover that the cancer had returned. With stage three melanoma cancer, she went straight into chemotherapy. Throughout her treatments, she received help from family, friends, and ward members. She recalled,

I remember one day waking up and I had this little 80 year old lady giving me my 10 different pills. She was just a member of the Relief Society who came to deliver my medication.

The love and help she received from so many different people inspired Williams to want to give back to others. After her last melanoma chemo treatment, Williams prayed to Heavenly Father asking for opportunities to help others who were struggling. Heavenly Father answered her prayers throughout the coming years, allowing Williams and her husband to adopt a daughter from China and to also invite three different young women to come live with them. The three girls lived with Williams’ family for many years and have become daughters to her and her husband.

Wiliams Family
Jan Williams with her husband, six children and son-in-law.

After moving to Utah to be closer to extended family, Williams received yet another round of bad news. On New Year’s day, January 1, 2014, Williams went to the hospital for emergency surgery and the doctors diagnosed her with cancer—again. This time, however, it was stage three ovarian cancer.

Throughout all of her cancer treatments, Williams found joy and hope from going to see musical productions. Despite her love for theatre, after teaching for 12 years, Williams had to close her doors when she got sick. She had no idea what the future had in store for her, until she got a surprise visit.

“l opened up the door and I had 30-35 past students sitting on my doorstep and they started singing to me. It literally filled my soul. I just bawled and bawled and I just couldn’t believe it.” Williams continued, “After that experience… I started to wake up in the middle of the night and all these thoughts would come to me and it was like I was planning my future.”

Mama Mia, Williams
Jan and her dear friends seeing a musical during her cancer treatment.

That experience led her to create Hope Box Theater — a theatre devoted to bringing hope to families who are battling cancer. Shows put on by either the Senior Production (students ages 12-18) or the Hope Box (community production) will each sponsor a family that is fighting the emotional, physical, and spiritual battles that accompany cancer. A portion of all ticket sales from the shows go to help the family. Additional donations to the family can be made either online or at the show.

The staff at Hope Box reserves the front row of the closing night show for the sponsored family to come and enjoy the musical for free. The first family the theatre sponsored was the Call family for the musical “Hairspray.” Williams explained,

The kids get so excited when the family shows up. They can’t wait to perform for them.

To choose the sponsored family, Williams and her staff go through the submissions they have received. A family member or friend can submit the name and a short paragraph about the individual battling cancer who they would like Hope Box to sponsor. If selected, Hope Box will then contact the family for more information on the individual’s battle with cancer. The theatre will publish a write-up and a video presentation for the audiences at the show.

The theatre’s next production, “9 to 5,” will open on April 27. The sponsored family has not yet been selected for this show. The deadline to submit a family to sponsor is this Friday, March 13, 2015. Submissions can be emailed to [email protected].

Williams feels that Hope Box Theatre is yet another answer to her prayers. She is able to give back to others who are struggling with the same trial she has endured three times already. Although each diagnosis is different for each person, Williams says she knows how emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining and challenging this fight can be, which is why Hope Box is so important to her.

Theater literally took me out of being sick. I need to be able to bring joy to these people because it is so hard to find it in the depths of treatment.

Williams, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that throughout her journey, with mortality staring at her right in the face, she held onto her basic faith that there was something else beyond this earthly life. She explained that sometimes she didn’t know why she should pray. If Heavenly Father already knew what the outcome would be, what was the point? Prayer brought new meaning when she realized it’s not why should she pray, but rather that she needed to pray in order to grow closer to Heavenly Father.

Williams urges those who are battling cancer, or any life threatening disease, to “reach up and hold onto hope.”

We all can have drop-dead syndrome at any time…We are only going to be on this earth once, so let’s go live it!

“Cancer is not curable, but I am living right now as if I have never had it before.”

beat cancer, Williams
Jan Williams and her extended family the day she found out the cancer was in remission.

Kylie is a writer at LDS.net and graduate of BYU with a degree in Broadcast Journalism. She grew up in a Chicago suburb where she gained a passion for the Chicago Cubs. She enjoys writing and live event video production.