Local singer doesn’t let cancer diagnosis hinder success

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published February 17, 2020

 Raye Williams strums her guitar in the kitchen of her Clawson home. The 30-year-old singer-songwriter is a cervical cancer survivor who is flourishing in her career.

Raye Williams strums her guitar in the kitchen of her Clawson home. The 30-year-old singer-songwriter is a cervical cancer survivor who is flourishing in her career.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Williams sits with her husband, Jon Drouillard, and dogs, 3-year-old Blanche, left, and 14-year-old Delaney, right, in their home.

Williams sits with her husband, Jon Drouillard, and dogs, 3-year-old Blanche, left, and 14-year-old Delaney, right, in their home.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Singer-songwriter Raye Williams records at Studio 221B in Oak Park. Williams is one of five Detroit-area artists chosen to share a $1 million endowment program called TIDAL Unplugged.

Singer-songwriter Raye Williams records at Studio 221B in Oak Park. Williams is one of five Detroit-area artists chosen to share a $1 million endowment program called TIDAL Unplugged.

Photo provided by Beaumont Health

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ROYAL OAK — Singer-songwriter Raye Williams, of Clawson, at 30 years of age already has a wild life story, from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs.

Williams was diagnosed with cervical cancer toward the end of June. Three months later, she received word that she had been selected as one of five Detroit artists to participate in a $1 million endowment program called TIDAL Unplugged.

Her initial decision to keep her diagnosis private led her to navigate a strange middle ground that involved doctor visits and publicity events, often on the same day. However, she later decided to share her story, given her public platform, in order to prevent other women from having to endure what she did.

 

Getting started
Williams, a native of Belleville, Michigan, knew early on that she wanted to be a singer. After already generating a buzz in the music community, she moved to Nashville at the age of 17 to follow her passion.

“I would’ve sooner if that would’ve been legal,” Williams joked. “I come from a very, very supportive family and they realized when I was pretty young, about fifth grade, that I could really sing. I was constantly putting on concerts in the basement and I started traveling a lot, doing singing competitions and opening for a lot of country artists.”

Despite spinning out on the freeway on her solo drive down to Tennessee, Williams plugged steadfastly ahead to her destination with a busted trunk — a metaphor that has continued with her throughout the rest of her career.

“I was a very blessed individual. I had some things lined up and some people who wanted to work with me full time. I was able to stay with friends and just pursue music full time, writing songs, performing demos for other songwriters and performing around Nashville,” she said.

Everything was good for a while, but then things started to get disheartening. The music industry changed with the introduction of social media and streaming.

While Williams contemplated how to set herself apart and reinvent herself, she started waiting tables and driving for the ride-sharing company Lyft.

 

Coming home
After a 10-year stint in Nashville, Williams decided three years ago to return to the Belleville area to take a breather and regroup. She continued to drive for Lyft in Detroit while pursuing a promising Motown documentary project.

“It was supposed to be six months,” she said. “I met my husband within two weeks of coming back up here. He lived in Royal Oak — that’s how I ended up in Oakland County.”

Williams and Jon Drouillard, 39, celebrated their wedding in an abandoned train depot about 20 miles outside of Nashville, surrounded by family and friends, in October 2018.

Williams said things started falling into place in Detroit. She implemented the invaluable lessons she learned in Nashville, including how to be a businessperson, find her voice and stand out from the pack.

She recorded a new single, sang background for other artists, played acoustic sets on local radio stations, launched her own website, wrote her own press releases, and shot and edited her own videos.

“Being up here in Detroit, one opportunity led to the next,” she said. “Last spring, I saw a sponsored ad on my Instagram feed from TIDAL. They said they were looking for Detroit-area artists to submit for a very unique grant opportunity.”

She submitted an application, found out she made it to the next round a few weeks later, and it snowballed from there.

 

Her big break
During Williams’ first video conference with the TIDAL team in New York City, she said they were impressed with her do-or-die spirit and how she wasn’t delegating responsibilities but working as a one-woman operation.

The top five finalists for the $1 million TIDAL Unplugged endowment program were selected after a series of live auditions. TIDAL is a global music streaming service owned by recording artists, including founder Jay-Z. Each Detroit-area artist receives monetary support, studio time, industry mentoring, marketing, video production, equipment and tour expenses.

Each artist will also release three songs exclusively on TIDAL.

Williams’ first release is called “Just Take My Money.”

Her summer was busy, filming a docuseries, taking promotional photoshoots and preparing for the big TIDAL Unplugged launch that officially dropped at 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 13.

“At 10 a.m., I was in the office of my oncologist at Beaumont Royal Oak discussing surgery options,” Williams said. “I was hearing my phone go crazy with calls, texts and notifications, but I couldn’t respond because I was talking to my doctor about how they’re going to cut me.”

She traveled to the studio straight from the hospital, where she celebrated with her family, friends who came in from Nashville, and other music associates. The next morning, the TIDAL team flew in from New York to hold a huge celebratory dinner for all of the finalists.

“That Friday, at the studio, there’s a video of us cheering and toasting. Everyone was so excited, but my husband and I were the only ones who knew what was going on,” Williams said.

She said October was a fun month, because she got to do a ton of recording, shot the rest of the docuseries, did photoshoots, gave radio interviews and shared a stage with one of her all-time biggest idols, Wynonna Judd.

“Everything was so great, I almost forgot (I had cancer),” Williams said. “I was consumed. … I didn’t give a whole lot of energy to freaking out about surgery.”

 

Surgery for cervical cancer
All of a sudden, it was Nov. 6 — the day Williams was slated for surgery.

“When I went into Beaumont, no one was more surprised about the procedure than me. It entailed so much,” Williams said. “It was definitely a very trying time. I was instructed not to read up on cervical cancer because (there is) a lot of information that can scare you.”

She said she and Drouillard held tight to the advice of “oblivion is bliss.” So when surgery day came, there were a lot of surprises.

She underwent a radical hysterectomy, which involved the removal of her uterus and cervix, along with the cancerous tumor. Gynecologic oncologist Dr. Jayson Field preserved Williams’ ovaries and moved them in the event that she might need radiation treatments.

Williams was released from the hospital four and a half days after surgery with a 10.5-inch incision on her lower abdomen.

“I had every side effect a person could have from surgery,” she said. “It was a very humbling experience, because I never had my body not do what I wanted it to do. That was kind of the hardest thing to wrap my head around.”

Two weeks after surgery, Williams, said she was “somehow able to hobble onto an exam table,” and Field told her they had found cancer cells in the blood vessels of the tissue they removed, so to ensure the cancer didn’t spread, she would need radiation treatment.

 

Radiology and spreading awareness
“The tumor was bigger and more invasive than they had thought,” Williams said. “I didn’t have to do chemo, but as a precaution, they highly recommended radiation.”

Her five-week radiation treatment took place Dec. 9-Jan. 14.

“During my first treatment, there was Christmas music playing ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,’” she said. “It was ironic.”

However, she said the staff and her radiation oncologist, Dr. Peter Chen, were very supportive and personable during her daily treatments and made a scary experience tolerable. It was only during her last week of treatment that she told them about her skyrocketing music career.

“She is very friendly, outgoing and just a very social person. Very well-adjusted, with a great attitude about her disease,” Chen said. “She is a very giving person.”

Williams eventually broke her silence about her diagnosis and treatment. Now she wishes to share her story to encourage other women to get periodic pap tests and consider the HPV vaccine, which can be lifesaving.

Field said all women should start getting pap tests at age 21. HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, although cervical cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer. If women get regular pap tests and the HPV vaccination, their chances of developing cervical cancer are greatly reduced.

“I knew going public was the right thing to do, if I can just help motivate one woman to schedule that appointment and show there is life and hope on the other side of this,” Williams said.

She added that Drouillard has been her rock through the whole process and her dream was always to be a musician, not a mom. She said they have adorable nephews and nieces they are obsessed with, as well as two dogs, 14-year-old Delaney and 3-year-old Blanche.

 

Forging forward
On Feb. 14, Williams left her 12-week checkup with flying colors. Chen said her prognosis is “excellent.”

On Feb. 4, the TIDAL Unplugged docuseries was released. Williams performed at the Winter Blast in Detroit Feb. 8, and on Feb. 18, her first single was scheduled to  be released, followed by the music video on Feb. 25.

“I’m grateful to be back in Michigan and for this unbelievable career opportunity through TIDAL,” she said. “There are no words to describe how thankful I am for my husband, family, friends and members of the Beaumont cancer team who helped me through my cancer diagnosis, treatments and recovery.”

For more information, visit www.tidal.com/unplugged or www.rayewilliams.com.

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