Heroes Project 2019: Olivia Thomas

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It’s been a decade now since we started The Heroes Project, our way of celebrating survivorship and supporting the fight against cancer. Every year in this issue, we introduce a new group of survivors and tell their stories in print and online. Stories of courage, of hope and of remarkable resilience. There are well over 100 Gwinnett Magazine Heroes.

What keeps me going is that I set small achievable goals every step of the way. My next goal is that I will get through this, achieve remission, and move on to have a beautiful, full life.

Olivia Thomas looked in the mirror but didn’t recognize the bald woman staring back at her.

“In just over six months, I had gone from being an independent woman to being someone who required a caregiver,” says Olivia, who was in the midst of her battle against an aggressive form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And it all started four years ago with a lingering cough and flu-like symptoms—and a small lump.

“In the summer of 2015, life was pretty perfect for me. I was 44 years old, finally getting back on my feet after a bad break-up. I was into hardcore workouts: X-fit, HIIT rollerblading, running with a group of women at 5 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, just living a normal life.”

But when she lost ten pounds over the holidays, rashes broke out, and that nagging cough didn’t react to antibiotics, Olivia demanded action. Scans revealed lungs and a lymph system full of tumors and huge lumps coming out of her chest, and when a biopsy confirmed the worst, treatments began immediately for stage IVB Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“My entire life changed in an instant.”

Olivia spent the next two hundred days in and out of the hospital enduring chemotherapy, hair loss, and life-threatening infections. The prognosis wasn’t good.

“Beating cancer took an unbelievable toll on me, both mentally and physically. My mind and body were always in survival mode.”

The cancer came back the last week of radiation treatments. While Olivia waited for a bone marrow transplant, her mother—a cancer survivor herself and Olivia’s primary caregiver—died. It was the day after Christmas.

After months of more treatment and clear PET scans, Olivia ended up in the emergency room again. The cancer was back for a third time, this time in her bones and abdomen. Drugs were having no effect and another stem cell transplant was ruled out. Immunotherapy and new medication came next and to date, it’s working slowly. As Olivia says, “Slow progress is better than no progress at all.”

As of last December, the cancer is out of her bones and the tumors are shrinking. Her advice for those in the throes of the fight?

“Embrace the support from people around you because cancer shows you who is truly in your life to stay. I’ve learned to accept help when I can because being strong means knowing your limitations and allowing others to be there for you when you need it.”

Bucket lists for cancer survivors usually change from “climb Mt. Kilimanjaro” to “survive another day.” Describing her experience as “the craziest years of my life by far,” Olivia is determined to do that—and more.

“Hodgkin’s has given me a new lease on life. I have definitely changed since the diagnosis. Now I don’t want to go back to my old self. I want to build up the new me I’m becoming. What keeps me going is that I set small achievable goals every step of the way. My next goal is that I will get through this, achieve remission, and move on to have a beautiful, full life.”

Olivia’s story made possible by a grant from Peggy Slappey Properties

Thank you, Peggy, for helping us to share Olivia’s inspirational story.

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