LA physical therapist battling stage 4 cancer gets big boost from friend Serena Williams

WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. (KABC) -- Sixty thousand Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year. It's a slow and insidious disease that strikes one in 64 people, sometimes for no known reason.

One young Woodland Hills woman is getting support from a couple of famous sisters.

"People always saw me as really healthy," said 43-year-old Esther Lee. After all, she played volleyball, ran marathons and did triathlons.

"I think that's so strange that I was this very unhealthy, healthy person," she said.

As a doctor of physical therapy, Lee's job is to help patients understand their bodies, but when she experienced fatigue and insomnia in early 2020, it puzzled her.

"I was having a really hard time breathing when I would go running. I started noticing that my upper abdomen started protruding." she said.

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Doctors discovered a 14-centimeter cancerous tumor on Lee's pancreas -- disease that had been silently spreading for years.

"It had metastasized and spread to my liver and my lymph nodes. It also has spread to my spine. So, I do have stage four," she said.

Lee has a very strong support system.

"My friend Esther was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer," said pro tennis champion Serena Williams in a video she shared via Twitter. "And she has been by my side whenever I needed her.

"I don't think I can do this -- this is going to be too hard for me," Williams said, wiping tears from her eyes.

For six years, Lee traveled with tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams. They became lifelong friends. On Sunday, Oct. 31, Serena Williams will join Lee at the Hirshberg Foundation's L.A. Cancer Challenge.

"My family and I have joined Team Esther in support of my friend and everyone fighting this disease," Williams said.

Lee has relied on the Hirshberg Foundation's support groups, patient navigators and research to help her get through her numerous surgeries and treatments.

"Even though I have this diagnosis and it comes with some challenges that are just a part of my life now, it's OK to have your bumps in the road. You just got to keep carrying on."

Crossing that 5K finish line on Sunday will be a victorious moment for Esther, and being able to do that with the people she loves gives her strength.
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