October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but there is so much more to the holiday than donning a pink ribbon.
Each year, the community comes to a halt in October to raise awareness for breast cancer, donning pink ribbons and buying pink merchandise. Many join the local Relay for Life chapter, kicking off fundraising for their teams and making preparations for the massive event that takes over Plant City High School in April.
For years, Janet Thomas has been one of the many who joined the fight. A teacher originally at Lincoln Elementary, then Knights Elementary and finally at Bailey Elementary as one of the inaugural staff upon its opening 10 years ago, she joined her school teams during Relay’s planning sessions.
It was a cause close to Thomas’s heart. She was in second grade when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and remembers going through that process as a family. Until you’re touched by cancer, it’s sometimes hard to fully grasp the importance of raising awareness and championing research for the American Cancer Society. Both Thomas and her sister, Joanie Petty, made it their mission to support Relay. Petty went as far as to volunteer for years with the group.
“My mom had breast cancer and just the disease itself, it’s such a horrible disease and with so many people having it, I wanted to do what I could to help and support and raise money for research, life-saving research that can impact so many lives,” Thomas said. “I think that’s why we all get involved and it’s why so many, like my sister, work year-round on this. It’s not just a night in April. They work all year raising awareness and fundraising and getting things in place for the next year’s event.”
Watching their mother’s diagnosis instilled in them the knowledge to stay on top of their health. Every year, Thomas went for a mammogram. In February 2018, a doctor found a lump. For unknown reasons, the doctor waved off Thomas’s concern and said everything was fine. Her gut told her otherwise and she brought her concern up to her primary doctor, who told her to get a second opinion.
Unfortunately, her gut was right. Thomas was diagnosed with stage four metastatic breast cancer, a cancer that has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other organs in the body.
“That’s scary, you know? When a professional said, ‘Hey everything is OK,’ and then it’s not,” Thomas said. “If you’re not sure, always get a second opinion.”
Thomas said she luckily had the knowledge of ACS and all of its educational assets to help her immediately dive in to research on the issue. She said her husband is very supportive and understanding and spends hours of his own time researching the disease and side effects. He’s even called the ACS several times with questions.
Her faith has also helped carry her through. She said she has full trust and faith in God and knows He will take care of her. While she doesn’t know His plan, she trusts His decisions for her life and leaves everything in His hands.
Metastatic breast cancer is rarely talked about. Few even know it exists. When it is discussed, Thomas said, it’s looked at almost as a death sentence. Yes, she’s tired. Yes she’ll deal with this disease for the rest of her life and has to continue treatment every month for years to come. But she’s not giving up, and thanks to advances in research, she’s given the hope of tomorrow.
“There’s never been a lot of focus on metastatic breast cancer,” Thomas said. “I’ll never stop having treatments or giving bloodwork or having scans. This is my future. I think people may have had that mindset that, ‘Oh, it’s stage four so they’re going to die.’ And that’s led to a lack of funding for research. But the advancements we’ve had, the knowledge that’s come from research has helped start to change that. People are living with it, we are learning so much and that is keeping people alive. The medicine I’m on right now is only around six years old. I’m literally surviving because of the research ACS helps fund.”
More and more women are coming forward with their diagnosis, speaking out and creating support groups for each other via social sites like Facebook. Olivia Newton-John announced she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and helped further the conversation around research on the issue. The more research there is, the better the chance of developing more effective treatments and, potentially, one day curing cancer in its entirety.
Despite her diagnosis, Thomas continues to teach her second grade class at Bailey Elementary. While she had to take off a lot for her biopsies and tests, she continued to make her class a priority, smiling at the young students and helping them absorb all the knowledge they’ll need to graduate to the third grade. They don’t understand, she said, but they’ve all been “so sweet” to her. Their parents have offered their support as well and the consistency of having a classroom full of eager eyes has helped keep her grounded.
Her school staff also stepped up to the plate, offering their assistance and support when needed. When she had to take off for radiation, she’d receive words of support from her friends and family. When a tumor ate through the middle of her vertebra and the doctor had to literally pour concrete inside of it to keep it from collapsing, she had a support system there every step of the way.
As soon as she could move around again, she was back in the classroom. Her appearance invoked many inquiries of “What on Earth are you doing here? You just had back surgery.” They may have thought she was crazy, but Thomas said being at school helps keep her mind off of the diagnosis and all it entails. It also forces her to remain physically active, which only helps her journey.
“I was little when my mom was diagnosed,” Thomas said. “You walk through life thinking ‘it isn’t going to happen to me.’ I’ve seen that in a lot of people and two of my close friends also have metastatic cancer also, both stage four. It happens and it happens to so many people, including several who are very close to me. I think your mindset does change once you are diagnosed or once someone you care about is diagnosed. Suddenly it’s real, it’s real in a way it wasn’t before. You become a walking educator in a way. I try to talk about things like making sure people get their mammograms done every year and getting them done at a young age, too, because the percentage of women that have their mammograms before the age of 45 is too low, it’s way too low.”
Now, Thomas said, she spends her days loving on the children in her classroom and then coming home for some much-needed rest. Treatment sucks out her energy, but she still plans on being involved in Relay again this year.
“Right now I think I’m just focusing on life,” Thomas said. “You’re not promised tomorrow, so get it done today. Don’t put things off that you want to do. Love the life you’re given and don’t take things for granted.”
Relay For Life 2020
To join Relay For Life Plant City come on out to Turkey Creek First Baptist Church, 4915 W. Trapnell Rd., on Oct. 21 at 5:30 p.m.
Relay For Life Plant City 2020 will be April 17, 2020 to April 18, 2020 from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. at Plant City High School, 1 Raider Pl.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.