Paying Strength Forward
By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alice G. Patterson
On Dec. 7, 2011, Earnestine Williams treated herself to an annual birthday present: a trip to the doctor’s office for a mammogram.
Soon after, she missed a few calls from the doctor’s office. Thinking it was likely about a client from her work as an enrollment department manager at Molina Healthcare, she wasn’t worried. A few days later, she received a letter requesting she call the office. Then, she began to worry.
She learned they’d found something during the routine mammogram. After a biopsy that weekend — her birthday weekend — Earnestine was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. To make matters worse, her mother also suffered from a stroke that same week.
Then, months later, while Earnestine was going through chemotherapy and radiation, her daughter, Shontravia, passed away suddenly and Earnestine was forced to fight for custody of her grandson.
The story doesn’t stop there. When her cancer treatment was almost complete, she found herself in a custody battle once again for another grandson.
When Earnestine recalled these challenges, she did so with quiet and confident inner strength.
“My mind was all over the place,” she remembered, adding that she thought about her job, finances, long-term effects and her hair. “I wasn’t ready for any of this. I prayed on it. I took it for what was and I never looked backed. I didn’t let it get the best of me. Easier said than done, but a lot easier when you don’t focus on what it could have been.”
Just face things and keep going, she advised.
“Don’t think about what the outcome could be,” Earnestine said. “You make your outcome what you want it to be.”
Building a foundation
Earnestine moved from a small town in Georgia to Syracuse almost 30 years ago with her then-boyfriend and 7-year-old daughter. Earnestine was pregnant when they moved to Syracuse in October and had her son the following March.
Soon, she was a single parent raising two young children. Her family gave her a strong base.
“I’m thankful for the strong women in my life,” she said. “My mother, my aunt and my cousins gave me the foundation to make it here. My mother’s words of wisdom were, ‘You can’t give up if you want to make it.’ My aunt’s support and two wonderful cousins here in Syracuse and Auburn area taught me how to be a strong woman. It’s hard working, raising children, going to school and taking care a home, but it makes you strong.”
So, Earnestine earned an associate’s degree from Bryant & Stratton College and began working for temp agencies.
Being a single parent with two young children, she knew it was crucial to have health insurance. Initially, Earnestine was eligible to have her children covered through Medicaid. When she began working full time for Total Care through a temp agency, her children were covered by Child Health Plus.
Through her more than two-decade-long career with Molina Healthcare, Earnestine has relied on her own experiences to help people navigate through the health care system.
“I love it because it gives me opportunity to give back to the community,” she said. “The people that we work with, they’re going through what I’ve been through. I moved here with no income and no job, pregnant with my son and in need of health insurance. Many of the clients we assist are new to the area and in need of health insurance.”
With options aimed at making health insurance more widely available, Earnestine would like to see more people have health insurance for themselves and their families. With health insurance, illness can more easily be prevented and fewer people will struggle, she explained, adding that more people will be able to work and give their family a better life.
“You don’t know what’s out there for you until you get into those situations. There are so many people who don’t know where to start,” she said. “So, being in the field that I am in, I’m thankful that — from my own personal experience and then from my job — I can help people navigate through that system.”
When Earnestine was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent treatments, she saw firsthand the importance of having health insurance when battling a serious illness.
“If I hadn’t died from the cancer, I would have died from the bills,” she said with a chuckle. “I’m just thankful I had health insurance.”
Connecting with CLASP
After finding out in early December 2011 that she had breast cancer, Earnestine wanted to start fighting it right away.
“So, I went in and had my surgery three days before Christmas. I wasn’t waiting,” she said. “I refused to wait.”
The surgery was successful, and in February 2012, Earnestine began treatment — three cycles of chemotherapy and 48 shots of radiation, lasting until 2014.
Her worst fear with the treatments was getting sick. Thanks to a few different nausea medications, she managed to avoid that.
“Even though it was a really bad situation, I received really good treatment the whole time,” she remembered. “My oncologist prescribed me great medications to help prevent nausea during my chemo treatments. So, I was very thankful for that.”
While the cancer was caught in its early stages and the treatments were manageable, Earnestine faced tragedy in other areas of her life during that time.
“I had gone out of town for the weekend,” Earnestine remembered. “That Sunday morning, my grandson, Deiondre’ — then only 12 years old — called to tell me his mom had a seizure. We had taught him that when she had seizures, the only thing he could do was try to keep her from falling on the floor and call 911. He had did everything we had taught him.”
She drove back to Syracuse to meet her family at the hospital.
“Never did it cross my mind that she was gone,” she remembered. “But I knew something was wrong.”
She arrived at the hospital and learned the news that her daughter had passed away.
After Shontravia’s funeral, Earnestine began to look into the process of gaining custody of Deondre’.
Though he was living with her, she was not his legal guardian at the time. Through a coworker, Earnestine became familiar with the Hiscock Legal Aid Society, an organization founded to help provide free legal assistance to anyone in the area in need. She learned the organization offered a program specifically for cancer survivors, the Cancer Legal Advocacy and Services Project or CLASP. According to HLAS’ website, the program offers legal services including lifetime planning, access to healthcare, income maintenance, family law, employment and housing preservation/eviction prevention.
The legal aid society helped Earnestine through the process and she finalized custody of her grandson in October 2012.
The following year, when Earnestine’s treatments were almost complete, she found herself turning to HLAS’s once again to gain custody of Malique, the son of her son, Tracey. Now, Earnestine and Tracey share joint custody of Malique, with Earnestine functioning as his primary caregiver.
While battling breast cancer, Earnestine became a parent all over again — twice.
“It was a change,” she said, comparing her experiences parenting. “Raising my kids and these kids, it’s like two different worlds.”
Through every struggle Earnestine has endured and conquered, she’s found an opportunity to give back and pass on her knowledge and experience.
Though she’s been cancer-free for almost six years now, Earnestine stays involved with the American Cancer Society through the annual Making Strides Against Breast Cancer campaign. She’s raised more than $3,000 for the organization and recruited more than 15 people to help join the fight.
Along with the work she does with Molina Healthcare to help people navigate the health care system, she’s personally connected with many people diagnosed with cancer, as well.
“It’s not part of my job, but because I’ve been there, I’m thankful that I can help,” Earnestine said.
She also served on the HLAS board for three years, assisting not only in guidance but also helping to organize the society’s largest fundraiser. Though she’s no longer a member of the board, Earnestine hopes to stay involved with fundraising efforts, to continue giving back to one of the organizations that helped her through an overwhelming and difficult time.
It’s no exaggeration that Earnestine has been through a lot. When people remark that she’s a strong person, she assures them she “has her days,” she said.
“There are some days that I just want to sit in a corner and cry, but that’s not going to get me anywhere,” she said. “I have to get up and keep going. I have to be strong.”
For anyone who finds themselves faced with so many challenges at once, Earnestine’s advice is to take things one day at a time and keep pushing forward. She finds strength in her faith, she said, explaining that she’s here for a reason.
“Don’t take life for granted,” Earnestine said. “Go get your mammograms. Support those who are out there struggling. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is October. Support us.” SWM