Basketball Hall-of-Famer and Orlando Magic co-founder Pat Williams is also the author of more than 85 books. One hardcover that the athlete and marathon runner 58 times over never planned on writing was “The Mission Is Remission: Hope for Battling Cancer,” after he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2011. Williams speaks about his journey — from surprise diagnosis to remission — and how he continues to use his skills off the court to beat his deadliest opponent.
What brought you to the doctor in the first place?
I had gone in for my yearly physical. When it was over, the doctor said, 'There is something in your blood work that doesn't look quite right and needs to be checked.' I didn't pay a lot of heed to it. Things were happening, and I had a lot to keep up with. However, a few days later, I woke up with excruciating back pain. I thought I had a slipped disk, or nerve issues, but they didn't find anything and the back pain was still there. I learned later that that was a pretty good indicator of multiple myeloma, but I didn't know that at the time. That's usually one of the first signs. So my family doctor said, 'I'm sending you to Dr. Robert Reynolds, and you're going to see him on Monday morning.' Then he said, 'Why do these terrible things have to happen to good people?' 'Woo,' I thought, 'Oh boy, what does that mean?' That led to several meetings with Dr. Reynolds, and they did several tests, blood and bone marrow, and brought me in officially and said, 'Everything is confirmed, and this is what we're dealing with.'
I read that when your doctor gave you the news, you knew nothing about multiple myeloma and had no history of cancer in your family?
Certainly not in my immediate family that I knew about. So cancer was not an issue for me. So when this news hit, my immediate reaction was, 'We're a cancer-free family, so what's going on here?'
How did your doctor respond to that?
His answer was very profound. He said, 'We don't know.' He said age might have something to do with it, but since then I've learned about so many younger people who've been dealing with multiple myeloma and have not made it, so I'm not sure that age or race has anything to do with it. So I've given up trying to fret and struggle over that issue. It happened for a reason, and then the question became — what are we going to do about this?
I read that you told your doctor that you're ready and willing to try anything and everything. Which treatments worked for you?
I told him right away, 'What are we going to do now?' And he said, 'Great, let's get started on the treatment,' and we did. I told him I'd be a very willing guinea pig here. 'You can try anything you want on me,' and that they have done. Fortunately, I've had a very good reaction and response to just about anything and continue to.
So you believe that it was a number of treatments working together that really helped?
As Dr. Reynolds once said to me, 'This is not an exact science, this treatment here. We're going to try a little of this and a little of that, and we're trying to find that which will get your blood numbers in line.' And so that's what they did. They kept trying different combinations and finally hit on something that's eliminated any signs of it. So I'm living cancer-free right now.
When you initially discovered that you had cancer, whom did you tell first, and how did you tell them?
Well, my wife, Ruth came in with me and sat with me in Dr. Reynolds' office when the news was officially revealed. I'm glad she was, because she had her notepad in there and took copious notes on everything Dr. Reynolds was saying. I was in no shape to write anything down, but she wrote down everything that he was saying. Then the big question was how and when do we tell the children? Along with that, how and when do we tell the public? I knew that this was something we didn't want drifting out, just coming out piecemeal, so we had to decide with the Magic publicity people how we'd break this story publicly.
How did you break the news to your children?
We broke it to the children one at a time. With 19 children, that was a lot of phoning and meetings, but we thought it was important to talk to each child individually and let them know exactly what was going on. Each child responded differently, some more emotionally and some more stoically. We got word to all of them and told them not to say anything publicly because we've got another issue now, and that was how we handled it publicly. That's where the Magic PR people came in. We set up a press conference and Dr. Reynolds was there at the head table, and it was great because there were all sorts of cancer questions being asked that I was in no way prepared to answer. Dr. Reynolds was really the star of that press conference. He did a great teaching job to the media. So the story broke and went national.
How did the team respond when they found out?
Very warmly and encouragingly. The front office and the ownership, Richard DeVos, prayed with me. I felt enormous support and love across the ranks of our organization, from top to bottom. To this day, they could not have been more supportive of me, along with the community here in Orlando.
How should loved ones support someone who's struggling with multiple myeloma?
I think the most important thing is not to panic and become emotional, really. Ruth has been a marvelous caregiver, but at no time have I ever seen her weep or say ‘Woe is me!’ or ‘What are we going to do?’ I've seen none of that. She’s always positive, always upbeat, always encouraging, and always helpful if I need it. But never anything that's sad or demoralizing.
So I think that's the best advice I can give from what I've learned: Family members, always stay up. Stay positive. And no pity parties.
Any advice for the patients, themselves?
Dr. Reynolds said this, 'Go live your life. We'll tuck the medical stuff in around your schedule, but go live your life as normally as you can.' That was really good counsel, by the way. I'm in the office every day, and my speaking life continues, and I'm still writing, with more books on the way. I haven't had to give up anything other than running marathons. I can't do that anymore.
From the minute that Dr. Reynolds said that that's our goal here, I think that's good advice for anyone dealing with cancer. Don't stop your life. Don't spend your entire waking life fretting over cancer. Cancer's going to do what it's going to do. But you, in the meantime, do what you have to do or want to be doing.
It sounds as if you're psyching cancer out.
Yes. Stay optimistic, stay positive, stay hopeful, and get on with your life. So I'm in the fifth year of this, greatly encouraged that we've come a long way with it and very pleased that I am able to keep my full life. I have not had to sit on the sidelines.
Do you keep tabs on the latest cancer research?
As best as I can. I've built some friendships in the multiple myeloma world and am able to stay current as an amateur on what's going on, and what's going on is very encouraging. There's new chemo coming almost every year now, and I'm very grateful for that — meaning down the road here, they can start applying that to my life. Right now, I'm staying with what's working. But there is more treatment out there they haven't used with me yet, because they have not needed to.
I've read that scientists are on the verge of transforming multiple myeloma from a fatal to a chronic condition.
Everything I hear is moving in that direction. The research on multiple myeloma has been effective, and all the news I'm hearing is very encouraging to us who are in the middle of it.
How can we raise multiple myeloma awareness?
It sure doesn't hurt when a Tom Brokaw, unfortunately, ends up dealing with it. But the positive of that is everybody knows Tom Brokaw, and then suddenly it becomes a visible issue and something that people are aware of — and maybe then it's something they want to give to the research of. It's almost like there's a multiple myeloma club. When you find out that somebody's dealing with it, it's like, 'Oh, my myeloma buddy here, tell me how you're doing and what's going on.' It seems like a fraternity.
Are you involved with multiple myeloma organizations?
I've become quite close with the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, up in Connecticut. I have a great respect for what they're doing. I'm also involved at Florida Hospital. They've asked me to help fundraise and build a world-class blood cancer center facility, so I've said I'll do everything I can to help there. So I've been called into the world of cancer battling and cancer research. I had never thought about that. I never saw that coming.
What made you decide to write a book about your experience?
Well, that happened on the very first day, as I asked Dr. Reynolds questions, like 'What's the life expectancy?' 'Two to three years.' We went back and forth with many questions. I said, 'What's the goal here? What are we trying to accomplish?' He said, 'We want to get this into remission.' So I looked at him and said, 'In other words, Doc, the mission is remission.' He said, 'Yeah, that's it. That sounds good.' So we ran with it, got some t-shirts made and wristbands, and it became the rallying cry around our home. We've been able to get there; it took time; it was not easy. But we've been able to get to that point, and at my last session with Dr. Reynolds, he said there are no signs of multiple myeloma in my system, and I said, 'Well, we praise God for that.' It would be wonderful if that were the case for the next 20 years. But they keep checking you, now every three months rather than every month.
What can we do to catch cancer early?
Well, my message through all this is very basic: Do not neglect your yearly physical because that way they can spot everything. Particularly through your blood work, they can see precisely what's going on. So if you have a problem, I would say you sure want to learn about it early and not later. I went in for my physical the year before this, and everything was fine. One year later it was not fine. That's my message to women, and men, in particular, who have a tendency to say, 'I don't like doctors, I feel fine,’ or ‘I'll take my chances.'