Twice a survivor

Gloria Thomas shares how, 15 years apart, she overcame cancer in each breast

AFTER having her second child in 2001, Gloria Thomas noticed that her newborn son never drank the milk from her right breast. This refusal continued until the baby was a rambunctious one-year-old when he playfully jumped on the breast, causing her so much pain that she had to visit the doctor. This is what led her to discovering that at 34 years old, she had stage two breast cancer.

“When the doctor examined my breast he felt two lumps, but after the ultrasound and mammogram, they turned out to be cystic (non-cancerous). It was during the operation to remove the cysts that they found a third lump…” Thomas shared as part of Sagicor Group Jamaica’s Together We Can breast cancer awareness campaign. The campaign aims to share the journeys of breast cancer survivors, support warriors, honour the fallen, and encourage women to get screened early for breast cancer.

“They took a sample from that third lump to be tested, and two weeks later we got the news that it was breast cancer,” she recalled. “I felt as if my entire world caved in because I had a child who was just about to turn two and another who was seven years old. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.”

Thomas, a devout Christian, grappled with the decision of having a mastectomy (removal of the entire affected breast) and considered all her options for treatment, including herbal remedies.

“I went on fasting, I prayed and asked God to show me a sign if I was to remove the breast. Then my father reminded me of the scripture that says, ‘If thy right hand offends thee, cut it off and cast it from thee’ and I had my breakthrough,” she remarked.

After the surgery, Thomas got on the road to recovery with the support of her husband, children, parents, and siblings. She also had the financial backing of her Blue Cross (now Sagicor Life) health insurance plan, which covered most of the cost for her tests, treatment, and hospital stays. The chemotherapy lasted for six months, with a break after the third month for radiation.

“Thankfully, I didn’t become extremely ill during treatment. I only had mild reaction to it,” she said. “I also balanced my diet well, drank my healthy juices, slept a lot, and did my best to keep my blood count up.”

After completing treatment in 2003, the survivor was screened regularly to ensure cancer had not spread, and five years later, she was declared cancer free. Thomas did not anticipate that the disease would strike again after 15 years.

“In 2018, after a trip to the States, my husband noticed that my breast looked white around the nipple area,” she shared. “I didn’t think much of it, but he insisted that I check it out, so I went to the doctor in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and they sent me to do a fine-needle biopsy.”

She had stage two cancer again, this time in the milk ducts of her remaining breast.

“And I had a sister, too, who also found out that she had cancer that same year… I was able to guide her and comfort her through it as I had survived it before. We both successfully went through treatment in the months following,” she shared.

But the triumph was short-lived, as Thomas’s sister passed away in 2020. Sadly, the sibling’s cancer had returned, and was a very aggressive stage four.

“We also lost my mother in that year to COVID-19. After I buried my mom, my sister passed away one week later. It was a very rough time on the family,” she shared sorrowfully.

Four years on, 56-year-old Thomas reflects on her breast cancer journey as one that took a lot from her, but one that she is grateful to have survived with a new lease on life. The two-time survivor will celebrate 30 years of marriage to her husband, Edgar on October 28, and her son who first led her to getting her breast checked out is now in his final year of nursing school.

“I am giving all the thanks to God and to my family and friends for always being there for me. They’ve always been there for me, and my husband Edgar has been very supportive. I’m happy to be here to celebrate with them,” she said.

Having had the help of her baby, then her husband in the early detection of the disease on both occasions, Thomas advised other women to take heed when their loved ones suspect that something may be amiss.

“After my first mastectomy my husband would want to feel my breast all the time, but I would brush off his hand because I was so scared of him finding a lump there, but thankfully he was still taking note, because he is the one who urged me to check it out when it started looking different,” she shared.

She also encouraged women to be vigilant when it comes to their breasts, even if no one in their family has had breast cancer before. “It’s good to get your mammograms done, starting at age 40, but it is also important that you do your self-exams regardless of your age. If you don’t know how to do it, let your doctor do it for you. Early detection is the key, and with that and prayer, along with the support of your friends and family, you will be able to survive.”