How to survive cancer, from the man who has beaten the disease five times

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Mr Potts, 63, from Florida, has waged a 20-year battle against the disease
  • He has overcome thyroid cancer once and lymphoma four times
  • READ MORE: These 3 high-fiber breakfasts can help prevent colon cancer

When Bill Potts answers the phone to DailyMail.com, he is infectiously jubilant. 

The father-of-three has survived cancer five times: thyroid cancer once and non-Hodgkin lymphoma four times. 

‘It sounds odd to even say those words [five time cancer survivor]. It’s such a big number,’ he said. ‘It’s humbling… And I’m obviously grateful.’

He stays razor focused for the whole hour and 20 minute call, which he later claims is one of the lessons he learned from his rollercoaster medical battle: soak every experience up like it’s your last. 

‘You start living in the present a lot more, because the future is not guaranteed,’ he said. 

Mr Potts, 63, from St Petersburg, Florida, works in sales and has waged a 20-year battle against the disease. 

As a cancer veteran, he has decades of experience undergoing treatments and dealing with their side effects and has a wealth of advice to give other cancer patients. 

He offered some of this advice and extended his condolences to Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales, who revealed Friday she is undergoing treatment for an unknown form of the disease. 

‘If I could give her just one piece of advice,’ he said, ‘It would be to stay on course. Focus 100 percent of your efforts on fighting the cancer. Let your family and close friends support you. Now is the time to focus just on you… and give yourself grace for being just focused on you.’

Bill Potts with his wife Kim and his twin daughters Sarah and Anna

Mr Potts and his wife ringing the bell to mark his final chemotherapy session in March 2021

Mr Potts and his wife ringing the bell to mark his final chemotherapy session in March 2021 

For Mr Potts, it all started in 2003, when his primary care physician informed him during a regular doctor’s appointment that there was ‘something wrong’ with his thyroid.

‘He could actually physically see a tumor that was on my thyroid on my neck,’ Mr Potts said.

At the time, Mr Potts was 42, in great shape with no symptoms.

‘I was shocked,’ he said. ‘I got physically sick in the doctor’s office when they told me.’

A biopsy confirmed it was thyroid cancer, and he had it removed during a five and a half hour surgery, followed by an intense course of radiation treatment.

Doctors at a different clinic later told Mr Potts the high radiation he received for the thyroid cancer may have been the cause of his next cancer – Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, which returned multiple times.

Radiation involves using beams of intense energy to kill cancer cells. Because it’s not 100 percent accurate, healthy surrounding tissue can become damaged, leading to mutations that raise the risk of cancer.

Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma affects the lymph system, the tissues and organs that produce, store, and carry white blood cells that fight infections and other diseases.

There is a large concentration of lymph nodes around the neck. 

Mr Potts in the hospital for a surgery in November 2020

Mr Potts in the hospital for a surgery in November 2020 

‘I was in the hospital for that [radiotherapy] and got released.

At this point, ‘I thought I was done with my cancer journey,’ Mr Potts said.

But six months later, doctors told him the thyroid cancer had come back and he would need to go through radiation treatment again.

‘I’m like, wait a second, that doesn’t pass the sniff test,’ Mr Potts said. ‘How could I have thyroid cancer back when my thyroid was removed, and I went through significant significant amounts of radiation treatment to zap out what was left?’

Confused, he decided to get a second opinion. He went to MD Anderson, the number one cancer center in the US, who told him while he did not have thyroid cancer, he had received a very large amount of radiation therapy.

Top tips for getting through cancer from a five-time survivor of the disease

  1. Own your journey
  2. Get a second opinion
  3. Build your cancer-beating team
  4. Don’t let it define you and have a positive mental attitude 
  5. Keep an eye on other people

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Then five years after his initial diagnosis, in 2008, he was diagnosed with stage three non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Doctors told him they would be prescribing him intense chemotherapy.

‘This time, I did not panic. I did not freak out. I was sad. Mad. Shocked. But, I knew how to manage it,’ he said.

Desperate not to lose his hair, Mr Potts refused, and demanded that the doctors came up with an alternative solution.

‘It took a while. They met for about two hours. I almost missed my flight back to Tampa. They said: ‘You’ll have never heard of this before, because really, nobody’s heard of this before. But we’re testing this thing called immunotherapy.’

In 2008, immunotherapy was fairly new, though now it is a common form of treatment. It works by boosting or changing how the body’s immune system works to help it fight the cancer.

He was patient number 23 in an immunotherapy clinical trial and as a result, went into remission for five and half years.

Going for a second opinion and being your own advocate are two major pieces of advice Mr Potts stresses for other cancer patients. 

A life-long athlete, Mr Potts said exercise is ‘a huge help for someone with cancer or cancer that will come back’, he said. 

Before treatments, he walks, bikes and plays tennis. 

During treatments is ‘a whole different story’, he said. ‘My main goal is to just walk a bit each day – and if I cannot walk – then I just sit outside.’

Mr Potts completing Ironman Texas

Mr Potts completing Ironman Texas

After immunotherapy put him in remission from his lymphoma, it wasn’t until six years later, in 2014, that it came back. This time, Mr Potts had surgery to take a cancerous tumor out of this throat and went through treatment again.

Then in 2019, the lymphoma came back again in his groin area and he was treated again at MD Anderson. In September 2020, after another 11 months of being in remission, his lymphoma returned yet again.

‘It was a frustrating moment,’ he said. 

He had surgery to remove the new tumor below his right hip, followed by an ‘ugly six months of chemotherapy and immunotherapy.’

As part of his cancer journey, Mr Potts takes his diet seriously.

He avoids fried foods, red meat and fatty and sugary foods. He has also dramatically reduced his diary intake and drinks a lot more water.

Mr Potts in January earlier this year

Mr Potts in January earlier this year

Immune-boosting foods including ‘lots of veggies, including colored peppers, fruits and lean white meat,’ now fill his meals.

Another piece of advice from Mr Potts is to build a cancer-beating team. 

‘For me, it’s my primary care physician, I’ve got a dermatologist because I had skin issues from my chemotherapy, I have to make sure I get my dental health taken care of, all these are impacted by your treatments.’

As well as medical professionals, it’s also family and friends. Mr Potts has two twin daughters, Anna and Sarah, and a son named Nick.

His family also helped out with writing parts of the 168-page book, including a chapter on how to deal with a cancer patient if you are their spouse or family.

The book is a ‘What to expect when you’re expecting,’ but for cancer, he said and is brimming with seemingly small practical tips that can make a big difference.

It was the hospital pastor's idea for Mr Potts to write the book

It was the hospital pastor’s idea for Mr Potts to write the book

For instance, don’t valet park when you’re going for treatment, because you’re not going to want to pay for your car when you come out of the hospital.

His other tips are to not let a cancer diagnosis define you, and to stay positive.

And finally, make sure to keep an eye on those caring for you.

‘If you’re a parent, or a sibling, or a son or daughter, which everybody is, don’t forget to keep an eye on them,’ Mr Potts said. 

‘You need to keep an eye on how they’re doing and make sure that they go get the help and support that they need as the family member of a patient.

‘You’ve got to always remind yourself, how are they doing and what can I do to get them some support? Which is why it comes in handy to have outside buddies to go with you to treatment so that sometimes you can give your spouse a break.’

Mr Potts added: ‘If I’m going to live to age 93, it’s gonna have to be a lot more than five-time cancer survivor, it’s going to get to 10, 11, 12 times, so we’ll see.’

Up For The Fight is available on Amazon.

FloridaKate Middleton

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