How to Survive Cancer, from the man who beat the disease five times

When Bill Potts answers the phone at, he is infectiously cheery.

The father-of-three is a five-time cancer survivor: once thyroid cancer and four times non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“It sounds strange to even say those words (five-time cancer survivor). It’s such a big number,” he said. “It’s humbling… And of course I’m grateful.”

He stays focused for the entire hour and twenty minutes, which he says is one of the lessons he learned from his medical rollercoaster battle: enjoy every experience as if it were your last.

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

Mr. Potts, 63, of St. Petersburg, Florida, works in sales and has battled the disease for 20 years.

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

He offered some of this advice and offered his condolences to Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales, who revealed on Friday that 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 the course. Concentrate 100 percent of your efforts on fighting the cancer. Let your family and close friends support you. This is the time to focus only on yourself… and give yourself the grace of only being focused on yourself.”

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

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

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

For Mr Potts it all started in 2003, when his GP told him there was ‘something wrong’ with his thyroid during a regular doctor’s appointment.

“He could physically see a tumor that was on my thyroid and in my neck,” Mr Potts said.

At the time, Mr. Potts was 42 years old, in excellent condition and without symptoms.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I became physically ill in the doctor’s office when they told me.”

A biopsy confirmed it was thyroid cancer, and he had it removed in a five-and-a-half-hour operation, followed by intensive radiation treatment.

Doctors at another clinic later told Mr. Potts that the high radiation he received for his thyroid cancer may have caused his next cancer: non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which recurred several times.

Radiation uses beams of intense energy to kill cancer cells. Because it is not 100 percent accurate, healthy surrounding tissue can be damaged, leading to mutations that increase the risk of cancer.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma affects the lymphatic system, the tissues and organs that produce, store and transport white blood cells that fight infections and other diseases.

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

Mr Potts in hospital for surgery in November 2020

Mr Potts in hospital for surgery in November 2020

‘I was in hospital for that (radiation) and was discharged.

At that point, “I thought I was done with my cancer journey,” Mr. Potts said.

But six months later, doctors told him the thyroid cancer had returned and he would have to undergo radiation treatment again.

“I’m like, wait a minute, that doesn’t pass the sniff test,” Mr. Potts said. “How could I ever get thyroid cancer when I had my thyroid removed and had significant amounts of radiation to zap out what was left?”

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

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

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

Five years after his first diagnosis, in 2008, he was diagnosed with… was diagnosed with stage three non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Doctors told him they would prescribe him intensive chemotherapy.

‘This time I didn’t panic. I didn’t panic. I was sad. Angry. Shocked. But I knew how to deal with it,” he said.

Desperate not to lose his hair, Mr Potts refused and demanded that doctors come 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’ve never heard of this before, because really, no one has heard of this before. But we are testing something called immunotherapy.”

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

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

Getting a second opinion and being your own advocate are two important pieces of advice that Mr. Potts emphasizes for other cancer patients.

Mr. Potts, a lifelong athlete, said exercise is “a huge help for someone with cancer or cancer that will come back,” he said.

Before the treatments he walks, cycles and plays tennis.

During treatments, it’s “a whole different story,” he said. ‘My main goal is to walk a bit every day – and if I can’t walk – I just sit outside.’

Mr. Potts completes Ironman Texas

Mr. Potts completes Ironman Texas

After immunotherapy put him into remission from his lymphoma, it didn’t return until six years later in 2014. This time Mr Potts had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his throat and underwent further treatment.

In 2019, the lymphoma returned in his groin area and he was treated again at MD Anderson. In September 2020, after another eleven months in remission, his lymphoma returned again.

“It was a frustrating moment,” he said.

He had surgery to remove the new tumor under 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 drastically reduced his diary intake and is drinking a lot more water.

Mr Potts in January earlier this year

Mr Potts in January earlier this year

Immune-boosting foods, including “lots of vegetables including colored peppers, fruits and lean white meats,” now fill his meals.

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

‘For me it’s my GP, I have a dermatologist because I had skin problems from my chemotherapy, I need to make sure my dental health is taken care of, all of this is affected by your treatments.’

In addition to medical professionals, they are also family and friends. Mr. Potts has two twin daughters, Anna and Sarah, and a son named Nick.

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

The book is “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” but for cancer, he said, and is packed with seemingly small practical tips that can make a big difference.

It was the hospital chaplain's idea that Mr. Potts should write the book

It was the hospital chaplain’s idea that Mr. Potts should write the book

For example, don’t park when you go for treatment because you don’t want to pay for your car when you get out of the hospital.

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

And finally, make sure you keep an eye on those who care for you.

“If you’re a parent, or a brother or sister, or a son or daughter, which everyone is, don’t forget to keep an eye on them,” Mr Potts said.

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

‘You always have to remind yourself: how are they doing and what can I do to give them some support? That is why it is useful to have external friends who come with you to the treatment, so that you can sometimes give your partner a break.’

Mr Potts added: ‘If I want to live to 93 it’s going to have to be a lot more than five times cancer survivors, it’s going to be ten, eleven, twelve times, so we’ll see.’

Up For The Fight is available on Amazon.