Williams' mission to raise awareness

Ken Williams is hoping he can raise awareness about supporting breast cancer patients. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO -- Exactly one month to the day that his fiancee's breast cancer and plans for a double mastectomy were revealed on live television, Chicago White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams expressed a crystallized focus.

Outside of his job in the White Sox's front office, his first priority is being the best caregiver as possible to Zoraida Sambolin, the CNN anchor, whom Williams became engaged to this past Christmas Eve. Sambolin, who Williams affectionately calls "Z," underwent her double mastectomy three weeks ago and is in the early stages of her recovery.

In the last four weeks-plus, Williams has noticed a void in the support system for women dealing with breast cancer and the oftentimes traumatic experience of a mastectomy.

"Quite frankly, there are some horror stories out there about guys not supporting their women in ways that you would expect," Williams said Friday. "I think when you have a loved one that gets sick, you have to walk the walk with them. You sign up for not just the good, but also when life throws you a little curve. I couldn't hit that curve when I was playing on the field, but I darn sure can hit the curves in life."

Williams said the "horror stories" include men who leave their partner after a mastectomy, or those that threaten to leave if their partner undergoes a mastectomy. For women already dealing with one traumatic experience, it adds another layer of hardship.

"I think that we need to educate our young men and women more on health in general, and not just the physical of what bad health means, but also the emotional side as well," Williams said. "There is the sensitivity that is needed to carry a person through a difficult time."

For a former baseball general manager who is now in an executive position with his club, Williams has faced challenges before, even those on a personal level when it comes to cancer, but he now feels he can help on a broader scale.

One photo of Williams that has been making the rounds on the internet is of him helping Sambolin to change the drains that help collect the discarded fluid from her surgery.

"I think any time you can show support in this way, you are in fact empowering somebody else that maybe was reluctant, or maybe a woman for instance that was afraid to ask for help from her partner," Williams said. "Maybe she might be more ready to accept that type of help knowing that yes, as men we are capable of being the nurturer, the caretaker. Women are so used to being in that role for us. Well, there are times that we have to play that role or be in that role for them."

It was on May 14 that Sambolin announced on CNN's "Early Start" that she had breast cancer and was preparing to undergo a mastectomy. She hadn't intended to make the announcement when she went to work that day, but when the discussion came around to Angelina Jolie's preventative double mastectomy, Sambolin became inspired to talk about her own story.

Williams and Sambolin had discussed whether or not an announcement would even be made, but when he rolled out of bed and flipped on the television that day, he knew that debate had ended. Like Williams with his assistance, Jolie has also played a small role in what Sambolin is going through.

"They have become pen pals as a result (of the on-air announcement)," Williams said of Sambolin and Jolie. "And Angelina, she will not have had a bigger more heartfelt hug than the one I will give her when I meet her, because she not only gave [Sambolin] the courage at the beginning, but she has given her an almost step-by-step advice along the way of what to expect next. It's her experience, whether it be from clothing to recovery to reconstruction."

Initially, Williams was reluctant to talk about Sambolin's recovery and the help he has been able to provide, but in the bigger picture he also knew that if one person is inspired to be a better caregiver to an ailing partner, then it was worth giving a peek inside to the couple's daily routine.

A few years before he became the White Sox's general manager in 2001, Williams' father underwent surgery for prostate cancer. Days like Father's Day, when players wear blue wristbands for prostate cancer awareness, and on Mother's Day, when players wear pink accents and swing pink bats, have taken on a whole new meaning for Williams.

"With my father, I was told by the doctor before he went into surgery to not expect him to get it all, but fortunately it was in one centralized area and they were able to get it all," Williams said. "In 15 years, he hasn't had an issue, so that has taken on a greater meaning to me as well. It's an exam that men don't want to go through. But if you are truly calling yourself the head of the family, then you have a duty and a responsibility to monitor your health care in that way."

Williams has still managed to keep focused at the office. His new role gave him the opportunity to take an even more active part in amateur scouting before last week's draft, and he even put off discussing Sambolin's breast cancer and mastectomy recovery until after the draft was completed.

Now moving past the draft, Williams will play a key role in what the White Sox elect to do before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. And he will also continue to be an advocate for cancer screening and prevention.

"We are losing far too many mothers and far too many fathers to things that we don't have to lose them to," Williams said. "With just some due diligence and being proactive in their health care, particularly in [breast cancer and prostate cancer], families can be saved.

"If one person in the family dies from it, doesn't everyone die a little bit on the inside from it?"