When Blair K. Williamson went for her annual mammogram at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital three years ago, she wasn’t surprised to learn that she had breast cancer. Williamson, who was 50 at the time, says she always thought she’d get breast cancer someday. Her maternal grandmother had breast cancer at the same age. “It wasn’t prevalent in my family, but it’s so common,” she explains. In an odd way, she felt relieved. As she puts it: “I didn’t have to worry about being diagnosed anymore.”
The mammogram showed a small, deep lump in Williamson’s breast. Lynn Dengel, MD, a surgical oncologist at Virginia Breast Care, performed a biopsy that day to confirm the diagnosis and scheduled surgery for later that week. “I was very lucky that I was diagnosed on a Monday, and that Dr. Dengel was able to remove the tumor on Friday of the same week,” says Williamson, who is president of her family’s Charlottesville-based paving business, S.L. Williamson Company. “The fact that it happened so fast was just good karma. You want to resolve the problem as soon as possible.”
Williamson also was fortunate that her cancer was caught early and hadn’t spread to surrounding tissue. After surgery, she had 16 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of radiation treatment.
“For me, it was important to have a really positive attitude about it,” she says. “It never occurred to me that I might die. Dr. Dengel said it was just going to be an inconvenience for six months, and then I would be fine. I believed her. Once they tell you what you have to do, you can do it. It’s the unknown that’s scary.”
Having a plan helped her, as did honest information from her oncologist, Jefferson “Mark” Prichard, MD. “He’s a fantastic oncologist and a really caring person,” she notes.
Williamson is a woman who enjoys being busy. In addition to the paving business, she also runs a company that manufactures a pothole-repair product, co-owns a knitting shop on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall and spends time volunteering. On top of all that, she likes to kayak, golf and play tennis. Other than a serious reaction to a drug she took during chemo, as well as the unpleasant side effects of radiation treatment, she says breast cancer treatment wasn’t as bad as she’d thought it might be, and didn’t slow her down too much. She underwent acupuncture therapy and reflexology to help with her symptoms and stress during the course of treatment.
Her chemo treatments were scheduled on Thursdays, which she enjoyed, since service dogs visited the hospital’s infusion center on those days. A dog lover herself, Williamson owns four rescue dogs and is chair of the Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA Board of Directors. Plus, a volunteer would deliver cookies for the patients on Thursdays. “The volunteers are all great, and the nurses are fantastic,” she says. “I can’t say enough nice things about the whole infusion center.”
Williamson found multiple ways to show her gratitude for her experience at Sentara Martha Jefferson. First, she donated to the hospital’s nursing scholarship program. “I was just so inspired by the nurses,” she says. “I’ve never been around a group of people who were so dedicated to what they do for the right reasons. They do it because they want to take care of people. Sentara Martha Jefferson’s Caring Tradition is so evident in the nursing staff.”
She also recently joined the Board of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Foundation. “They approached me to be on the Board, and it was an easy ‘yes’ for me,” Williamson says. She’s looking forward to supporting the hospital in achieving all of its goals, but she’s especially interested in improving access to good medical care in the community and continuing support for the hospital’s High-Risk Breast Program.
Williamson is thankful to have such high-quality care in Charlottesville, as well as doctors and nurses with such a strong commitment to their patients. “You want caregivers who love what they do,” she says, “in an atmosphere like Sentara Martha Jefferson where they love to work.”