On April 6, 2017, at the age of 29, Thomas had a mole about the size of a dime removed from the center of his back. It was biopsied and came back positive as Melanoma. Because of where it was located the doctors weren’t sure which direction it would spread, if it had spread. They did a contrast test to see where the contrast traveled to, it didn’t move from the injection site. Next was a PET scan, it came back clear. The doctor that removed the mole told him he was in the clear, the margins from removing the Melanoma were good and they took enough tissue from around it, he told him if he had anymore spots come up to let him know. Instead of referring him to an oncologist then to keep an eye on it and make sure it didn’t spread. Unsure of what was supposed to be the next step, we took his word and just kept an eye out for any suspicious moles.
A year went by with no problems, no issues, and on March 30, 2018, Thomas woke up with a golf ball sized knot under his left arm. He went back to the surgeon that he originally saw, all while the knot continued to grow bigger each day. He had an ultrasound done confirming that it was in fact swollen lymph nodes, some as big as 4cm in length. A punch biopsy of a lymph node was positive for Melanoma. I will never forget laying in bed with him that night knowing everything about our life that we had built together was about to drastically change.
We got in with the Melanoma specialist at Stephenson Cancer Center in mid-May, his PET scan from the week before showed he had the mass under his arm along with another mass on his chest wall. It was Stage 4, but she was so confident that it would be treatable. He tested positive for the BRAF gene, making him eligible for a clinical trial. He went through extensive scans and tests to ensure everything was good for him to start the trial. He got the infusion side of the trial, and had his first infusion on July 5, 2018. He had 3 infusions and became so sick he couldn’t get himself out of bed. He lost so much weight. He was a very tall and skinny man, so he didn’t have much weight to spare. He spent August 28th and 29th in OU Medical where they drained 6 liters of fluid off of his abdomen. When the fluid was tested it showed it also had Melanoma cells in it. They also did MRIs and informed us that the cancer had spread into both of his lungs, his liver, lymph nodes in his pelvis and a couple vertebrae in his lower back. His doctor made the choice to take him off of the clinical trial and change his medicine to an oral pill he took daily.
Once he began taking the pills it didn’t take long for him to turn around and was feeling better every day, finally eating again and getting up more. On September 6 he wanted to play a game of pool with his mom, he was a fantastic pool player and for him to be able to play a game of pool sent his mom and me over the moon! He played two games and was worn out, but he got up and played and that made us happier than anything else ever could have. He continued to get better, put weight back on, and even went back to work as a lineman. He truly loved being a lineman and considered the men he worked with to be his brothers.
We made the decision to leave Stephenson and continue his care at MD Anderson in Houston. His mom and him went to his first appointment on September 12, they agreed the pills he was taking were the best treatment option but they also added an infusion to his treatment.
Still continuing to improve and get better, the mass under his arm was shrinking, and the mass on his chest could no longer be felt. His daughter, with her 6 year old heart of gold, had a bake sale for her daddy in September in their home town of Erick, OK, raising over $1,000 for him. He refused to take that money and opened a savings account for her instead. We went on vacation to Colorado in October and did every little thing he wanted to do. We all knew he was given a second chance at life, and he wasn’t going to waste a second of it.
The week of Thanksgiving 2018 he had his routine MRIs and other scans at MD Anderson to check the progress that he had made. That day we were told the most amazing news we had ever heard! Not only was the mass under his arm almost gone, the one on his chest wall was completely gone! Along with both lungs clear, and the spots in his liver and spine had significantly reduced in size. I said this is it! You’ve got it! You’re going to beat Melanoma!!! I wanted to cry tears of joy right there in the doctors office! We celebrated by driving down to the ocean, sat on the beach, watched the sun set and talked for hours. We laughed and soaked in every second of that perfect day.
He had his 31st Birthday in December, celebrated Christmas, and brought in the new year! Life was great again. We continued making monthly trips to MD Anderson, seeing his dr and having treatment. He was still working and had gotten back up to the weight he was before he got sick.
It was January, and we went down for his monthly doctors appointment. He had been having a sinus headache for about a week prior. His white blood cell count was slightly elevated, so she put him on an antibiotic. After finishing that round of antibiotics he still had this sinus headache and pressure behind his eyes. After calling his doctor she recommended us to go to our local ER and request an MRI, even with her orders the ER wouldn’t do the MRI, only did a CT with no contrast, gave him some pain medicine and told him he still had a sinus infection. He did another round of antibiotics with no relief.
On February 6, 2019, he called me to come get him from work, he was hurting too bad, and was too sick to work. I knew something was wrong, but I could never imagine it would be so bad.
We spent the entire day on February 13 having his routine scans, and on Valentine’s Day we met with his doctor. I knew when the actual doctor, not a PA, came into the room that it wasn’t good. He told us that the Melanoma had spread to the lining of his brain, and into his central nervous system, that isn’t an area his current treatment could get to in order to treat. He wanted to do full brain radiation and also add another infusion to his treatment. I sat in that doctors office and couldn’t find a single word to say. Thomas stared at me, in a way that he was trying to tell me everything was going to be ok. He was sick, and hurting, but he was worried about me, that’s the kind of man he was. He slept the 8 hour drive home, and I cried while I drove. It was less than 3 months before that we were celebrating on the beach so sure he had this monster beat. How did it go so wrong, so fast?
He had leptomeningeal disease. Every tumor in his body was shrinking and reacting perfectly to his treatment. Making this diagnosis not seem real, we had so much hope that he could still beat it.
He had his first radiation on March 11. They wanted to do 10 days of radiation, 5 days, a break for 2, and then 5 more days. They also did a spinal tap to test for Melanoma in his spinal fluid, his pressure was very high and it was positive for Melanoma. He and his mom went down preparing to stay for 2 weeks. He did his first 4 days of radiation and on the 4th day they also gave him his new infusion. They spent the entire day at the hospital and he got very little rest. That night he began to have seizures and was incoherent, his mom decided to call an ambulance and they took him to MD Anderson early that morning, on March 15. I rushed to Houston to be by his side, along with both of his sisters, his brother, sister-in-law, brother-in-law and his nieces. There was very little change while he was in the hospital. They put his radiation on hold, and he had good and bad days. Days where he was his ornery self and joked with the nurses and his family, and days he was mad, no longer wanting to be in that room and ready to go home.
On March 21 he had another MRI, showing it had spread even further into his brain, at that point his doctor told us it was time to take him home and have him on hospice care. He couldn’t tell us how long he had left, maybe a week, maybe a month. The world around us had collapsed. This was one of the strongest men all of us knew, how can this be happening to him??
After 8 days in the hospital, we all left Houston together on March 23, headed back for Oklahoma. Thomas and his mom in an ambulance. We got home late that night, it was cold out, but Thomas hadn’t seen his daughter in over 2 weeks, he wouldn’t even let us get him inside the house before throwing his blankets off so that he could hug her tight.
He spent the next week at home, surrounded by family and friends that loved him. We told stories with him, talked to him and he laughed and joked with us when he was feeling up to it.
Early in the morning on April 1, 2019, his fight was over, heaven gained an incredible man.
His friends had such love for him that they dug his final resting place by hand, they refused to let it be done by anyone else. It was the last thing they could do for him, and they weren’t about to let him down.
The church was packed full the day of his service, hundreds of people came to pay their respects to this man that was everyone’s best friend. He was so easy to love. He was funny and full of wit. People loved to be around him, he was so full of life and always knew how to make anyone laugh.
Thomas was always outdoors, he loved to fish, and loved even more to fish with his daughter. He also loved to hunt, shoot guns and grill. He was an amazing friend to so many and is missed by more people than can be counted.
He has left behind one daughter, Gabby (7), myself, Ashley, his girlfriend of over 3 years, my two children, Rachel (8) and Ryan (7). His parents, Tom and Diana, an older sister, Tiffany and her husband Ryan, older brother Victor and his wife Deirdre, a younger sister, Natasha. As well as 3 nieces, Peyton, Presley and Khloe.
One diagnosis took away a son, a brother, a little girl’s dad and my very best friend. You never think this is something that can happen to you or to someone you love, after all, it’s “just skin cancer.” But Melanoma is so much more than that. It’s an unforgiving, relentless monster.