Initially, it had been easy for Thornton to hide her disease from others. The ultraviolet therapy she received even gave her skin a healthy-looking tan. When her cancer became more aggressive, though, not only did the symptoms make her look sick, the treatments would too. “My doctor said to me, ‘We’re putting you on the path for the bone marrow transplant, which means you’ll do a course of radiation and you’ll lose your hair,’’ says Thornton. “I rebelled. To me, losing my hair put the stamp of ‘cancer patient’ on my head and I went into denial. I spent the next six months researching different therapies: homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, all types of holistic healing modalities – some really wacky, some really interesting that helped. Ultimately, though, I couldn’t find anything else that was working. I was ready to do what I needed to do.”
The first step in her radiation treatment was having some of her head shaved. One evening, after a few treatments, she stood in front of her mirror and just pulled out the rest. “What was amazing was how incredibly freeing that was,” says Thornton. “It was like taking off that final mask that you wear to the world and saying, ‘Guess what? Take me as I am because, like it or not, I’m not going to put on any false fronts to make you feel comfortable.’ That was something that I had done a lot in the past so it was an amazing opportunity for me to grow and be much more comfortable with who I am.”
Thornton underwent intense radiation treatments for three months, and miraculously her tumors cleared up. She never required a bone marrow transplant. Over the years she has had more radiation treatments and recently has started intravenous therapy with a type of interferon. So far she has been able to manage even aggressive flare-ups of her cancer and to fight off the tumors when they occur. Her success has inspired her to seek out other challenges.
“Shortly after my initial radiation treatments were done and everything had gone so well, I turned 40, threw myself a big birthday party and ran a half-marathon with my lovely bald head,” says Thornton. “I developed a ‘Come-and- get-me-if-you-can’ kind of attitude. In 2001, I joined the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program in which you sign up for an endurance event and you get coaching and raise money for this cause. I finished the Chicago triathlon in 2001. I was hooked. I have done 17 since then, and in 2004, I did a half Ironman, which was, to date, probably my proudest accomplishment.”
Most healthy women wouldn’t think of setting out to do a half Ironman. How can a woman who lives with cancer do it? Thornton chalks it up to “an extremely strong constitution.” “I have learned to control the things I can in my life, and then surrender to those things that I can’t control. I really believe in that connection of mind, body, and spirit. The things I know I can control are the foods I choose to eat, and the exercise that I do, and I can control the people I choose to be with. I surround myself with people who have phenomenal, great spirits, great human souls, many of whom are other survivors I met through ‘Team in Training.’ The people that I’ve surrounded myself with do not dwell on their diseases. That’s a huge key. You need to concentrate on your life because who knows how long anybody has, anyway?”
Having cancer has also caused her to reevaluate what’s important in her life. “When you go through a cancer experience, your life is not the same as it was prior to your diagnosis,” says Thornton. “You have to learn from that experience, leverage it, use it, and then create from that place. I live my life more fully, more richly because I have cancer. I haven’t done big trips to the Amazon or to Africa or things like that but, on a day-to-day basis, in the relationships that I have with my family and friends, I think cancer has enabled me to be much more authentic and to communicate with people and to see the richness in every-day life that you tend to sort of blow by. It’s easy to get involved in the hurry of everyday life. Having cancer has made me take time to be more aware and it has also taken away some of that fear of dying that we all have.”’ She lives in the present. “I’m 51. I love this decade. It’s the best decade of my life.”
For more information about cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, or the Team in Training program, log onto The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.