For Mackenzie Thomas, there were times this summer she wasn’t sure she could keep up the good fight.
“There were points where I didn’t want to do it anymore,” says the 24-year-old who recently completed seven weeks of radiation and three bouts of chemotherapy aimed at fighting her second bout of squamous cell carcinoma in the past 24 months.
After suffering through head and neck pain for two years, Thomas was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in 2008.
Following a successful surgery to remove a tumour that fall, she began to bounce back.
Over the next year, eight lymph nodes were removed from her neck. Thankfully, the nodes turned out to be benign.
While all this was going on, a stubborn Thomas graduated with honours from Memorial University’s kinesiology program, played indoor soccer in St. John’s last winter, and began working as a personal trainer and rehabilitation specialist at Goodlife Fitness in Mount Pearl.
She even bought a new car, lived in Calgary and Pennsylvania, and was accepted into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police cadet training program.
Thomas was finally getting her life back.
But before long, many of the same symptoms from 2008 resurfaced. During soccer games, she would be hit with bouts of nausea and dizziness, and become disoriented.
When Feildians/Facey Financial Planning women’s soccer team opened spring training, Thomas felt fine during the first two practices.
“There was a day I came into the gym and I couldn’t do some drills. I could only jog. Normally I’m first or second to be finished.”
A frustrated Thomas told coach Jamie Roche she couldn’t commit if she didn’t have 100 per cent to give.
Not long after, doctors informed her the cancer was back.
“I don’t think the first time I went through it I was scared,” she said. “When it came back after a year and a half, I wasn’t surprised because I was sick the whole time.”
On June 7, her 24th birthday, treatment resumed.
Cancer can change a person. And Thomas contends it changed her.
After being diagnosed in May, she began to shut the world out.
“I didn’t let anyone see me broken down. I didn’t want anyone to see me that way.
“It was hard for me mentally. I didn’t answer phone calls, I didn’t text, I didn’t go on the computer. I shut it off.”
At times during her treatment and subsequent recovery, Thomas simply wasn’t able to communicate.
Normally a vivacious young woman with a sharp sense of humour, Thomas grew frustrated and weary.
“I was tired of hearing the same thing over and over. People would call every day and I’d hear my mom repeat the same thing over and over again, and I would be in my bed crying.”
Close friend and Feildians teammate Hilary Hutton could see it happening in the few times Thomas visited with the team or when the pair spoke.
“I’m not saying she changed who she is, but this past year you can see she’s been a little more sad,” says Hutton.
“If I were in that situation, I wouldn’t be able to mask it.”
Sensing the darkness creeping in around her, Mackenzie turned to soccer and her Feildians team’s run at a provincial senior ladies’ title to help her persevere.
“My No. 1 goal was to play this weekend in the Jubilee tournament. Even it was for only five or 10 minutes, I didn’t care. I just wanted to play. All the time I was in hospital and at home, I envisioned myself scoring the goal to go to nationals,” Thomas said.
“I didn’t let anyone see me broken down. I didn’t want anyone to see me that way. “It was hard for me mentally. I didn’t answer phone calls, I didn’t text, I didn’t go on the computer. I shut it off.” - Mackenzie Thomas
But after the aggressive treatment concluded in July, an already slight Thomas had lost 31 pounds, all of it in muscle mass from her lower body.
Then, during the month-long recovery period since her last bout of chemotherapy, Thomas was admitted to hospital on two separate occasions after losing consciousness.
It means she won’t get to hit the soccer pitch with teammates this weekend.
“That hurts a lot. It was a big thing for me,” says Thomas, a former Memorial University Sea-Hawk.
But things are improving for Thomas, and faster than even her doctors expected.
They said her planned treatment was one of the most aggressive a cancer patient can undergo, that 95 per cent of patients don’t make it to a third chemo session because their immune system isn’t usually strong enough.
“They told me I’d be really sick, need a feeding tube, that I wouldn’t be able speak and might have to go to speech school. They said it could be two months before I get my taste buds back.
“I proved them wrong.”
In her last week of treatment, her sore and swollen neck quickly began to heal, a good indication of healing beneath the skin was well underway.
It will take two full years without any reoccurrence before Thomas can be deemed cancer free, and she admits to living in fear of a third relapse. The future isn’t easy to think about.
“I know how it feels to have this. I’m scared because it came back a second time. Until I’m healthy and don’t have any pain, I can’t make myself sure that it’s gone.
“I don’t know when I’ll get back to my life.”
Through a strict medication schedule coupled with a healthier appetite, Thomas has seen a marked improvement since being released from hospital less than two weeks ago,
“It used to take me three hours to eat something like cream of wheat,” she said. “Now I’m down to an hour.
“Every day I get up, I spend time with people, answer the phone. I even drove to Heart’s Delight with my mom to see my nan.”
The wall Thomas erected around herself is coming down and Hutton is encouraging friends to reach out.
“A lot of people she’s known for years are afraid to come up to her. She doesn’t want that. She’s still Mac. Don’t be afraid to call her or say hi if you see her,” says Hutton.
Thomas knows cancer can change you, but she and Hutton agree it never took away her sense of humour or smile.
Through her ordeal, she found a way to see change in a positive light.
“I used to worry — a lot — about everything. Now I could care less about anything except what matters.”
At the suggestion of her nurses, Thomas is headed back to the hospital soon.
But this time it's to start a squamous cell carcinoma awareness group so she can help others keep up the fight, inside and out.