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New opponent for MHS senior: cancer

Payton Williams (right) and friend Tregg Peterson practice on the tennis courts at McNary High School last week. Williams was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma in July. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)
Payton Williams (right) and friend Tregg Peterson practice on the tennis courts at McNary High School last week. Williams was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma in July. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

There are some things cancer, and its various treatments, will take from its victims without them having a say: energy, appetite and mental acuity are a few.

But, there are some where the patient has more control.

For 17-year-old Payton Williams, his dreadlocks were in the latter category.

“I’d spent five years growing them, and I wanted to lose them on my own terms,” Payton said.

Discussing his dreadlocks is one of the few serious moments in talking with the McNary High School senior that isn’t immediately followed by a joke. That’s something else the cancer hasn’t taken: his sense of humor.

“He has a fun presence about him that you have to laugh and have a good time. He’s always positive and trying to get people to laugh,” said Tregg Peterson, another McNary senior and longtime friend.

Payton was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma in July and is undergoing chemotherapy in the run-up to surgery to remove two tumors in November.

After surgery, he’ll put in another 12 weeks of chemotherapy treatments. In the midst of it all, he’s seen family and friends rise in support (see related story page 10) while his doctors haven’t yet settled on a final diagnosis.

He was scheduled to undergo the next of many biopsies earlier this week for a final determination.

The ordeal began last spring while Payton was playing tennis for the Celts.

“I started having back pain, but it was like a pulled muscle. My dad would massage it, but an hour later it would be back,” Payton said. A bone scan was ordered, and a swollen vertebrae appeared to be the source of the problem.

In June, Payton attended a YoungLife camp and threw himself into the physical activities. While playing a modified game of dodgeball, he removed his shirt and spent time defending his legs and feet with his hands, hunched over more often than not. When he bent down to retrieve his shirt, he was almost unable to stand back up.

An MRI was scheduled, cut short and replaced with a CT scan that revealed a large tumor climbing from his pelvis to his spine and another on his stomach. (Don’t ask him about the barium shakes he had to chug the following day for further tests.)

On July 16, the tumor on his back was diagnosed as cancerous while the one on his stomach was found to be benign. Payton took the news in stride.

“It was kind of like going to the doctor and being diagnosed with the flu, it was just, ‘Well, what do we do next?” Payton said.

It hit harder for his parents, Kim and Spencer, but Payton’s attitude has had its own side effects.

“I get strength from him. I’m usually pretty sappy when it comes to things like this, but I just went into mama bear mode because we had a lot of decision to make,” Kim said.

The response elicited a quip about mama bears and tree sap from Payton. Kim laughed whole-heatedly.

While many of the bills will be covered by insurance, medications, copays and trips to Portland for doctor visits and treatments are adding up quick. Payton’s sister, Shaylee, and her friends suggested setting up a gofundme.com account. They ended up needing Kim’s assistance and set a goal of $400. Not long after it was set up, they’d collected $4,000 and were closing in on $6,000 at press time. More than half of that total has already been put toward hospital copays.

“The cost of treatment set in pretty quick. The day they diagnosed Payton, they told us we had another appointment that Friday and to bring $500,” Kim said.

Despite all the tests, Payton is just beginning the battle. He’s only got one chemo treatment under his belt, and even that was more of an adventure than it is for most.

“I have to keep my metabolism up, so I have to keep moving or they’re going to give me a shot in the stomach. I’m inside this bubble suit because I need the clean air, doing my laps trying to avoid the shot and, when I look down, the chemo bag is leaking. I go up to the nurse and get her attention and then they’re putting on masks and hazmat suits while I’m inside with a leaky bag in shorts and a T-shirt,” Payton said.

While a team of doctors and nurses is aiding in the medical fight, moral support has come from all corners, especially those not in hazmat suits.

When Abby King, of the local non-profit 4Him2Day that provides support for local families whose children are fighting cancer, visited, she asked Payton directly whether there was anything he wanted.

“I have everything I want right here at home. I’ve got good friends and a great family,” he said. “It’s kind of a tough question to answer, though. Now that I think about it, a giraffe would be nice.”

Payton said the diagnosis hasn’t changed much about his day-to-day life yet. Kim disagrees, but it’s been positive change.

“He definitely has more appreciation for what he has. I think he’s realized how much he loves his life and that it’s not infinite,” Kim said.

It’s also given him a rejuvenated sense of interest in the career he plans to pursue – bioengineering.

“It seems like such an easy thing to fix, you know? All you would have to do is fix the one messed up sequence in the cell and this whole cancer thing would be over, but when you’re talking about one sequence in billions of sequences, the problem is a whole lot bigger,” he said.

The worst of it may be yet to come, but Payton does his best to not let it interfere with his life. He was on the McNary tennis court less than an hour after the interview ended.

“I’m more tired and I wash my hands more, but when I have energy, I want to be doing things. Playing tennis, ping pong, bowling. I’m just a teenager,” he said.

Talking about tennis, Payton wonders aloud if losing the dreadlocks might not be such a bad thing after all.

“That’s going to be different without the hair this year. I won’t have to wear a headband. I used to miss the ball all the time because the dreadlocks got in the way,” he said.