First person

Heroic mother battled her fears to the very end

Andrea Torres, a Miami Herald staff writer, has been chronicling her battle with breast cancer in Tuesday’s Tropical Life.

atorres@MiamiHerald.comDecember 26, 2012 

A trip to South Africa, Broadway musicals, baking sessions, chocolate truffles — and whatever else made her little girl giggle — were the priorities. For Meredith Israel Thomas, making plans to be with her 5-year-old was a fight against time; a test of quality vs. quantity.

After she was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, Thomas did everything in her power to buy more time with her “princess,” Niomi. I watched her journey on Facebook.

The trouble with cancer is that it can start in the breast, then spread to the bones and other organs. Thomas’ pancreas began to give up this year. But she didn’t.

“Finally at peace,” her husband Gary Thomas wrote in her blog hours after she died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center late Friday night at 39.

“We were all with her holding her hands and telling her how much we loved her as she fought so hard for her last few breaths. ... She died with dignity and grace, as she had lived her life.”

When Meredith lived in Miami, she loved going to the beach with Niomi. After her diagnosis, there was a sense of urgency that propelled her to create as many memorable moments with her family as she could.

The days of working at RCA Records and artists like Kings of Leon and The Dave Matthews Band were soon behind her.

Cancer patients — even during times when everything seems all right — have to learn to live with the fear of impending doom. All it takes is for a tumor to appear to be growing inside you to spark havoc. For some of us, hearing the word “remission” could take years. And even after you hear it, the word has a reputation for being unreliable.

I recently found that a small mass in my armpit had grown. It took seconds for me to drown in the quicksand of speculation. And then the fear was paralyzing.

When I told my friend Christine Zahralban that I had noticed the dime-sized irregular mass, she asked when my appointment was. I told her it was in a week.

“What? That is too long of a wait. They need to see you now,” Zahralban said. “Do not waste time. Give me a moment. I will call you in 10 minutes.”

She hung up and jumped into action. I was with my surgical oncologist, Dr. Robert DerHagopian at Baptist Hospital, the next day. He asked me to raise my arm. His fingers were his eyes. He didn’t think it was cancer, he said.

“The antibiotics should reduce the swelling. We will check up with you in 10 days,” DerHagopian said.

A panicky voice in my head screamed: “And if it doesn’t?” DerHagopian read my mind: “We can have surgery to remove it next year.”

More immediately, surgery to remove the port through which I had been fed nutrients and drugs was done Monday morning at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

After treatment, my list of fears has grown. Some are irrational fears — like not wanting to work out in a gym, because there are terrible skin infections and bacteria. And then there are the rational fears, like never being able to be a mother. The list is long.

When Meredith was in my shoes, she gave cancer the middle finger and went on with her life. In Facebook and in her CaringBridge blog, Meredith showed us that her love for Niomi and her husband Gary were bigger than her fears.

I have had to rely on friends to cope. During the past year, Michael Maryanoff, a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patient, has become one of my best friends.

When he doesn’t poke fun at my fears, he tries to reason with them.

“Trust the experts. You didn’ t go to medical school.”

“Fear of what? Just make your doctor’s appointment already.”

“Cancer is not necessarily a death sentence. A car can run you over tomorrow. Stop thinking about that.”

Meredith focused on preparing for the end. She got all of her Christmas and Hanukkah shopping done in November.

In her writing, the former publicist displayed great courage. Her husband referred to her last days as “epic” and “inspirational.”

“The sweats have caused the pain patches to not work, and the reason I’m bloated is the pancreas ... I miss my baby,” Meredith said Dec. 16.

Following her journey taught me that enduring “the end” is possible. I will do my best to enjoy today.

“Here’s to feeling good,” she wrote Nov. 11. “Knock on wood that it continues.”

Meredith, wherever you are: Thank you. Today I am less scared because of you.

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