Against the Odds, Leaning into Life
A career manufacturing engineer decided to finally earn his degree — then received life-changing news.
When Mark Williams enrolled at UC Clermont College to earn his associate's degree in fall 2015, the 47-year-old thought his biggest challenge would be the return to studying and schoolwork nearly three decades after graduating from high school.
"I hadn't opened a textbook since 1988," says Williams, who is a quality engineer at General Tool Company and has worked in manufacturing for 28 years. He had decided that earning a degree in Manufacturing Engineering Technology would set the right example for his two daughters, who were just starting their own higher education journeys — one alongside him at UC Clermont. "How can I encourage them to earn their degrees if I don't have mine?"
But soon after he began his first semester, Williams received a devastating diagnosis: Lingering back pain was discovered to be stage 4 lung and bone cancer. Without treatment, he was given between six and 12 months to live. After a second opinion at MD Anderson in Texas agreed with the initial diagnosis, Williams began an aggressive five-month chemotherapy treatment at Mercy Health Anderson that would qualify him for a newer, second-line immunotherapy with fewer side effects.
Right away, Williams decided he would tackle his illness — and education — head on. "I'm only 47; it was a lot to take in," Williams says. "I'm not going to retire. But here's the way I look at it: If I keep working and going to school, keep my mind and body busy, I believe I'm going to stay alive."
Determined to finish his first semester despite being sick and weak from chemo, Williams's wife of 25 years pushed him in a wheelchair into his English course's final presentation. After taking the next semester off, Williams came back to UC Clermont in the fall of 2016; he works full time during the day and attends classes at night. His immunotherapy treatment, which Williams will receive every two weeks for the rest of his life, is showing some signs of success: His last scan revealed that several tumors in the liver and thoracic spine had disappeared. Throughout, he says his UC Clermont instructors have been fully supportive.
"My AutoCad teacher's wife had cancer, so he understood," Williams says. "When I had my last scans, he was worried and e-mailed me to find out how everything went. All of my instructors have been that way."
Williams has now outlived his original prognosis by eight months — and doesn't intend to slow down any time soon. He has made the Dean's List every semester and hopes to finish his associate's degree next year, which will include several course credits for his extensive career experience in the field. And while Williams set out to earn his degree as an example to his daughters, he understands that his difficult challenges — and the life-affirming attitude with which he is facing them — is teaching them much more.
"I look at the better side of things instead of the worse," Williams says. "Don't stop, don't quit. Life is short. I could easily give up, but what fun is that? Yes, I'm probably dying, but no, I don't have time for that. I have too much to live for."
This story was originally published in summer 2017.