Survivor Story: Kelly Thomas of Nyack

Pete Kramer wrote this profile of Nyack’s Kelly Thomas for the Sunday Life section on Oct. 16, 2011:

Kelly Thomas certainly didn’t expect breast cancer at 31.

“It doesn’t run in my family,” says the 33-year-old Nyack resident. “Some women expect to get it. Their grandmother had it, their mother had it, their aunt had it. I had no knowledge of it. I knew about every other cancer because my father had colon cancer, then the liver, then the lungs. I knew all the other cancers except for breast cancer.”

Still, she knew something dark was in the air in January 2010: It was in the cards.

Kelly Thomas of Nyack, a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed in her 30s, is photographed Sept. 20, 2011 in the Harrison studio. ( Tania Savayan / The Journal News

(Photo by Tania Savayan/The Journal News)

Thomas, who grew up in Ardsley, does her own tarot-card readings, and she kept seeing a card of foreboding.

“The tower card is like fast, upheavel, destruction, disaster. It could be divorce, it could be death when accompanied with other cards. It’s just always a dark, scary card, and I kept getting it over and over.”

She thought her new relationship was in peril.

It turned out it was her life that was in the balance and that her new boyfriend at the time — who had beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma years before — would be a godsend, the person who first found the lump in Thomas’ breast and who helped her through her treatment and much of her recovery.

She had both breasts and a lymph node removed and underwent chemotherapy, radiation and reconstructive surgery. The cancer has not recurred in Thomas’ regular follow-up exams.

If Thomas had the tower card and cancer, she also had key people — and a positive perspective — that made it bearable. After the jump, 10 more things about Kelly Thomas’ cancer story that fit that description:

1. Her father, Brandon “Brad” Thomas, who owned a mechanic shop in Tarrytown before retiring to Florida in 2004 and was battling cancer at the time, told her what to expect. “It was reassuring and comforting because I’d be going through it and calling him and he’d calm me down, saying it was all normal. We had this whole other bond.” Her father died on May 26. “I still get emotional talking about him,” she says. “I can talk about myself, but talking about him gets me. He was my daddy, of course, but, he was my mentor.”

2. Her boyfriend at the time, Rob, also knew about cancer. “He’s like the most mellow, easygoing guy. His attitude was ‘Eh, just cancer. Eh, just a little chemo. You’re fine.’ It was absolutely kismet that he was in my life exactly when I needed him,” says Thomas, who adds that the relationship ended but the two are still friends.

3. Her best friend, Lauren Novotny, who lives in Dobbs Ferry, was diagnosed with breast cancer four months after Thomas. “She’d come over to my place and we’d have ‘cancer day care.’ We would sit on my couch for a week and I’d get her a blanket and get me a blanket and we’d watch soap operas together. Every time we’d feel nauseous, we had this big bottle of Coke syrup. I’d pour me some and I’d pour her some. And she’d say ‘I don’t want it,’ and I’d say, ‘Drink it!’”

4. Megan Bell, the bar manager at Luna Lounge, where Thomas tended bar, and Tom Lynch, the manager at Casa del Sol, another Nyack haunt where Thomas also was a bartender, took care of her bills and helped set up a foundation to defray Thomas’ expenses. Thomas was dubious at first.
“I didn’t want to be a charity case. Then I realized what the bills were going to be and how much I really wasn’t going to be able to work, and I changed my mind. I’m really glad they did it.”

5. Her friends held a fund­raiser at Casa del Sol. “Everyone I’ve ever met in my entire life came to the fundraiser,” she says. “It was overwhelming. I bartended in Nyack for a while, so people knew me as Kelly from Casa or Kelly from Luna. I remember them as Bud Light John or Bud Light Greg. It was so amazing how many people showed up.”

6. She stayed optimistic: “We choose to be miserable or happy overall. I chose to be a happy person that a bad thing was happening to. I was happy to have breast cancer because it has one of the best survival rates, and I got some perks out of it,” she says with a laugh. “I fill out a T-shirt a little better now.”

7. She wrote poetry, including one about undergoing chemo, titled “Poison,” that includes the lines:
“Sweat-laced sheets become ordinary
My femininity falls all around me
follicles of hair line my pillow case.
A pounding heart pulsates like a drum in my chest
beating a swift symphony. 
Wind floods my fluttering lungs
My bones ache as if it were winter.”

8. Her age, while it made her cancer rare, gave her strength. “When I was going through chemo, I’d look around at the older people and wonder, ‘How do they do this? How do their bodies handle this?’”

9. Thomas kept an online journal — through caringbridge.org — to update friends and family on her progress.

10. She still has lingering effects from the cancer — pain in her legs and feet and a condition called lymphedema that requires her to wear a compression sleeve on her left arm — but she also still has her sense of humor. “I have to wear this brace on my arm when I fly,” she says, bursting out in giggles. “When the physical therapist brought it in to show me, I burst out laughing. I call it my “Muppet arm.” It doesn’t bend, and it is Muppet blue. It is so ridiculous. They had to make it neon blue? Really?”

Liz Johnson

Liz Johnson is the food editor of The Journal News and LoHud.com, for which she's won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.