Kathleen Sutton Fund helps Bainbridge woman fight the good fight

For Nellie Thomas, battling cancer has been a 15-year fight — a long and expensive fight.

And without the help of the Kathleen Sutton Fund, Thomas wonders if she’d still be alive.

“I’m just very, very thankful for them,” Thomas said. “If it hadn’t been for their help, I doubt I’d be sitting here right now.”

Thomas, 69, of Bainbridge Island, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 after she found a lump.

“I felt it,” she said. “I’d had my regular yearly mammograms and it wasn’t found. I discovered it myself.”

The initial oncologist thought it was Stage 2 cancer, but when she went in for a second opinion, another oncologist found that the cancer had already spread to her bones. This made it Stage 4, which is considered not curable.

She immediately had a double mastectomy and in February 2003 began chemotherapy. She finished her treatments and had four years of remission.

Thomas’ career had been in marketing with Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom and she was hoping to take her skills to work for a nonprofit before she got her cancer diagnosis. She was able to work for Winslow Animal Clinic as a receptionist and, later, for a jet travel company, which helped her financially and expanded her support system.

But in 2011, cancer was discovered in her brain.

Since then, she’s had three gamma knife procedures (a type of radiation), and is still undergoing chemotherapy. After her first gamma knife, she developed necrosis, the death of good tissue, and was treated for that with 60 hyperbaric chamber sessions, which were successful. However, the gamma knife had also damaged her peripheral vision, making her unable to drive. She is also on medication to control seizures.

Every doctor’s appointment, chemotherapy treatment, MRI, CT Scan, radiation and surgery has required a trip to Seattle. She originally was covered by private medical insurance, and then was able to get disability coverage. She now qualifies for Medicare coverage.

But none of that covered transportation costs to and from treatment.

“I was running out of money,” she said. “I tried to find a place in Poulsbo for treatment but, in my case, that wasn’t possible. I’d used up all my savings and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

During her search for treatment in Poulsbo, Thomas found out about the Kathleen Sutton Fund. She went home and called. Soon, Vivi-Ann Parnell, a Kathleen Sutton Fund board member, contacted her.

“She was wonderful,” Thomas said. “She talked with me about what I needed and she told me ‘Don’t worry. We will be with you all the way.’ ”

There were more trips to Seattle because of a fractured hip from a fall and another fracture in her foot. The cancer prevented her bones from healing quickly, putting her in a wheelchair for four months, and then a Leg-Up scooter.

“That’s another thing the Kathleen Sutton Fund has done for me,” she said. “They provide travel expenses for a support person to take me to my medical appointments.”

Currently, she is taking Magnetic e-Resonance Therapy (MeRT) to help her with her cognitive memory loss. That requires daily trips to Seattle.

“From all the chemotherapy and the gamma knife procedures, my mind had been affected,” Thomas said. “I have trouble finding words. And I can’t always keep my train of thought.”

But, she said, since taking the MeRT, her family and friends have noticed a big difference in her ability to communicate.

Although cancer has been a part of her life for 15 years, she’s had many things to celebrate, Thomas said.

“I am always in a continual state of hopefulness and disappointment, but I have a wonderful partner-caregiver, friends that support me, and a 14-year-old black Lab that wakes me up in the morning and makes me smile every day.”

It’s been overwhelming physically, emotionally and financially for Thomas. Taking it a day at a time is the only thing she knows how to do.

“I was in my mid-50s when my cancer was diagnosed,” she said. “This month, I’ll be 70. It’s not how I thought I’d be spending these years. But it’s been both challenging and rewarding. I’m extremely thankful for the people who have supported me, like the Kathleen Sutton Fund.”

— Leslie Kelly is special sections editor for Kitsap News Group. Contact her at lkelly@soundpublishing.com.

A part of getting chemotherapy is losing your hair. Nellie chose to show her bald head. Contributed photo.

A part of getting chemotherapy is losing your hair. Nellie chose to show her bald head. Contributed photo.

Nellie Thomas spends time with her dog Zoie. Contributed photo.

Nellie Thomas spends time with her dog Zoie. Contributed photo.