Alumna writes novel discussing friendship, cancer

Mary Elizabeth Williams and her best friend from college were both diagnosed with cancer.

Mary Elizabeth Williams’ best friend, Debbie Preg, once told her that they were going to grow old and die together at age 90. Williams said she believed her.

The pair experienced everything together: they were college roommates, close friends and art students at Temple. They were married only six months apart and their first children had the same expectancy date.

In 2010, they shared another life-changing experience: they were both diagnosed with cancer within three months of each other.

“Our lives were so parallel,” Williams said. “But they differed in that one of us got better and the other did not.”

In September 2014, Preg passed away and Williams, a 1988 radio, TV and film alumna, began writing a book called “A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles: A True Story of Love, Science & Cancer.” The Salon magazine writer will release her book on Wednesday. It reflects on Williams’ experiences with fighting her own cancer and losing a best friend to ovarian cancer.

“The prime love story in the book is one between two friends,” Williams said. “And to be able to still feel her friendship makes this one of the greatest love stories ever.”

While they studied at Temple, Williams and Preg worked together on art projects in their apartment in Center City. And in sickness, Williams said Preg taught her how to deal with the cancer she was fighting.

“Debbie dealt with it with such grace,” Williams said. “She has been an inspiration in so many ways.”

Jill Burke-Huyette, a 1987 radio, TV and film alumna, also lived with the two in Center City. She considers them two of her closest friends. Burke-Huyette lived in Peabody Hall with Preg her freshman year. After she studied abroad in London with Williams, the three moved in together.

“I have never had friends that were as close as we were,” Burke-Huyette said. “It left me speechless and devastated when they were both diagnosed.”

“I am glad they had one another to be with,” she added. “Those were trying times that required a lot of faith.”

Williams sought treatment at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where she opted to undergo a clinical trial of a new immunotherapy drug combination — ipilimumab and nivolumab — which was not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The immunotherapy treatment is designed to use the body’s own defense system to target and attack cancer cells so that they can be eliminated and prevented.

“I figured it was my best shot,” Williams said. “And I soon became one of the first people to survive stage IV melanoma.”

In 2015, the immunotherapy drug combination treatment was approved by the FDA and is now used to treat several different kinds of skin cancer.

But even though she survived, Williams said she will never forget that her best friend didn’t.

“I didn’t want to write a book about how great I was to have defeated cancer,” she said. “I wrote it from a point of view of someone who was hurt and deeply humbled by cancer.”

Williams said writing her book was the way she coped with that hurt — she would dump what she was feeling onto blank pages.

“I think that people will have hope and will learn about cancer treatment after reading Mary Elizabeth’s book,” Burke-Huyette said. “She wrote it in a way that is relatable and easy to understand.”

“I hope people can also learn that we need one another,” Williams said. “I want people to take from my book a story about friendship because no one should have to go through anything alone.”

Patrick Bilow can be reached at

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