Health & Fitness

Running through cancer

Brian Thomas, 35, of Lake Worth finishing a 100K run in 2011. He was preparing for an 1,800-mile run from Florida to Michigan with his group, Road Warriors, to raise money for cancer patients.
Brian Thomas, 35, of Lake Worth finishing a 100K run in 2011. He was preparing for an 1,800-mile run from Florida to Michigan with his group, Road Warriors, to raise money for cancer patients.

Going the distance has taken on different meanings for Brian Thomas over the years. A runner since middle school, Thomas, 35, found his niche in long-distance running. At his peak, he ran up to 150 miles a week and twice ran cross-country to raise money for charity.

But the road got rocky in spring 2013, when the Lake Worth resident was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. A rapid decline in health, surgery and chemotherapy left Thomas weakened, sickened and near death.

The eighth-grade science teacher at Okeeheelee Community Middle School in Greenacres, in suburban West Palm Beach, who once ran for hours at a stretch, could barely walk to the end of his driveway. But he fought back, one step at a time, gradually to longer walks, then short runs.

Now Thomas not only runs for his life, but to improve the lives of others.

A runner since age 14 in his native Michigan, Thomas started long-distance running in high school. He ran his first marathon in college and, after graduating in 2002, he ran 1,200 miles from Michigan to Florida to raise awareness for kids with cerebral palsy.

After moving to Florida, Thomas started teaching and coaching track. He mentored teens in long-distance running, and in June 2012, Thomas led a group on a 1,800-mile run with the Road Warriors, a group he founded to raise money for cancer patients.

It was a painful irony when eight months later, in March 2013, Thomas himself was diagnosed with cancer.

“I had been sick for months. I was constantly worn out, and when I did the run, at times I was hacking up blood,” he said. But he had bronchitis, and steroids were masking the real issue. Thomas said he felt bad enough to seek medical help, but blood and heart tests revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

Still, he could barely hold down food. He was bloated and gassy, and the abdominal discomfort quickly turned to acute pain. He went to the emergency room, and an endoscopy and biopsy led to a diagnosis of metastatic mucosal melanoma, a Stage IV melanoma in which cancer cells have spread through the lymph nodes.

Thomas underwent surgery to remove the tumor, along with his gall bladder, about a third of his stomach and part of his small intestine. A follow-up of alternative medicine did not work, and in two months the cancer had spread to Thomas’ liver. Doctors told him to say his goodbyes.

Undaunted, Thomas sought medical opinions around the country. In September 2013, he started chemotherapy through the Burzynski Clinic in Houston, which is known for aggressive alternative treatments. Though it began to shrink the tumors, it wore him out. Slowly and painfully, Thomas got back on his feet.

“I started run/walking as soon as I started chemo. All the doctors said the same thing: ‘Because of your surgery, you have to move. You have to walk and be active,’” he said. “That was the excuse to get back and do it. When I came out of surgery, they forced me — which was a good thing — to start walking around the hospital, which was horrible.”

Back at home, Thomas’ family leaned on him to continue.

“I had to learn how to walk down to the end of the driveway, then I would come in and sleep the rest of the day. It was exhausting,” Thomas said. “Then I got to the point where I could walk to the end of my street. There was a lot of walking and sleeping.”

Thomas said it was an excruciating process.

“Sometimes I paid the price. I would walk a quarter of a mile too far, then for three or four days I couldn’t leave my chair,” he said. “It was a slow, slow process.”

But he kept at it, and in November 2013, Thomas did his first 5K run, at Thanksgiving, with the support of his family.

Running on chemo was incredibly hard, he said. “I called it chemo cross-training. It feels like you’re finishing up a marathon. Your muscles are cramping. The veins in your legs feel like they’re pumping acid. You’re exhausted, and you’ve only run a mile,” Thomas said.

Slowly, he built up mileage, and learned to embrace long walks, which kept his stress level down. He added a mile or two a week, and learned to take breaks when his head wasn’t in it. He skipped races when his energy was low.

“You just have to be OK that sometimes you’re not going to be OK,” Thomas said. “Sometimes you need to take a nap, and skip the run, but know you’re going to get back to it. You’re going to get back in there, because if you can’t do what you love, life is not worth living.”

In January 2014, still thick into the chemo, Thomas ran his first 10K. It was torturous, he said, until he ran into a couple — both on active chemo — doing the 50-mile portion of the run. That chance meeting revved up his resolve.

“Being on chemo was heavy, and there were definite limitations to the miles I could put on my body, but doing the distances I do is a mental battle. Those kinds of races are not a physical feat. They’re a mental feat,” he said. “It just brought to light what I was capable of, when my counterparts on chemo were knocking out 50- and 100-mile races, and they were living. It wasn’t killing them. So I decided to push a little harder.”

Though his endurance was increasing, Thomas felt like the chemotherapy was only keeping the tumors at bay, and he could feel his body weakening.

“Battling cancer and being on chemo is very much a mental state. You see the people who have given up, and you see the people who have decided to fight, and it’s a conscious decision,” he said.

Thomas said he started looking for clinical trials of something cutting-edge, aggressive, and less caustic to his body. In March 2014 he entered a trial of immunotherapy at the Mount Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami.

The treatment was a combination of two immunotherapy drugs. The first was ipilimumab, also known as Yervoy, a drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to stimulate the immune system. “That drug alone is effective in treating metastatic melanoma, but it has a lower response rate,” said Dr. Jose Lutzky, an oncologist and melanoma director at the center.

The second drug is an investigational drug that boosts immunity by inhibiting a particular enzyme in lymph nodes. “That is in addition to the effect on immunity that the other drug has. The rational is to amplify immune stimulation of the ipilimumab,” Lutzky said.

Thomas started immunotherapy with four 90-minute intravenous infusions of the ipilimumab given three weeks apart. The second drug is a capsule that he takes daily.

“I believe at some point, when we feel that we’ve achieved the best response, we will stop the drug,” Lutzky said. “As long as he is responding, he is allowed to continue.”

Thomas’ tumors have shrunk to 45 percent of their original size by one standard, though he has not yet met the goals of a second standard, Lutzky said.

“With immune therapy, it can be an ongoing, slow process as the immune system gets stimulated to act on the tumor cells. It may take several weeks or months. It can take some patients a year before they achieve a complete response,” he said. “But the reality is that his disease was progressing, and not only did it stop progressing, but it started regressing. He’s doing really great.”

Thomas began to feel stronger on immunotherapy, and switched his training method to build up his frequency first, without the mileage and intensity. He ran every other day, gradually adding a mile or two.

In May, he had a 15-mile day. In June, Thomas completed a 31-mile race in the mountains of South Carolina wearing a shirt emblazoned “Without Limits.” “That’s when I broke free of my limitations,” he said.

Over the summer, he beat one of fastest guys on his team. In August, he ran 85 miles in 24 hours. Now he runs 60 to 90 miles a week. In June 2015, he plans to run cross-country again.

Thomas and his group, the Road Warriors, have scheduled several events to benefit local cancer patients. He runs almost every day, before school or after, or whenever he feels up to it. But he follows his intuition, taking breaks as needed.

His doctor chuckled about the “crazy things” Thomas does to keep up his long-distance running.

“I don’t know where he finds the energy, but he’s in great shape,” Lutzky said. “I don’t know if the running helps his disease, but it certainly helps him psychologically. I think it’s something that he needs to do ... it’s part of him.”

Thomas said he has never felt better.

“I feel like an animal. I feel like a road warrior. I feel tougher than when I ran cross-country the first time,” he said.

Thomas said lifestyle changes also contribute to his well-being. He changed his diet to include loads of raw and lightly steamed vegetables and juicing, and proteins are free-range and hormone- and antibiotic-free. He has a regimen of complementary treatments, including taking weekly hot baths spiked with a cup of apple cider vinegar, dry brushing on his extremities and torso to stimulate his lymphatic system, and body rubs of castor oil and olive oil, followed by a warm bath, a walk and a hot shower.

Thomas said he runs now to help others who can’t afford pricey cancer treatments.

“My first dose of chemo, because of the type it was, was $30,000 out of my pocket,” he said. “My goal is to use what I’m really good at, which is to run long, long distances, and motivate people to help others in our local area finance their live-saving treatment ... It has been an adventure, and I’m all about the adventure.”

Contact Julie Landry Laviolette at julavio@gmail.com

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