Carolyn A. Thornburg

Carolyn Thornburg2Carol was a person who viewed the world with optimism. Even when life brought hardship she never let it rule her life. She chose strength and happiness in the wake of adversity. Carol’s cancer story begins in spring of 2008. In March of that year, we went to see Van Morrison in Nashville. We spent time dining out and taking in the sights of the city. As I look back at the photos of us that early spring, I now see the beginning of a disease that would stalk her for 5 ½ years. In the photos, I now notice her build was a little more slender and her eyes had begun to have a tired look, though she continued to have that radiant smile. Later that spring, Carol and her brother Don were returning from California. While on the plane, Carol noticed a sharp pain in her back with the pain and burning sensation radiating like a band completely around her midsection. That same month, with the continued complaint, Carol saw a doctor who recommended a CT scan as a precaution. To our horror, the results indicated a 4cm mass located in the retroperitoneal area wrapping around the Inferior Vena Cava (IVC).

So, within a few weeks Carol was in an extensive 6 ½ hour surgery where doctors resected the IVC, removed her right adrenal gland, and gall bladder. Doctors also removed part of her right kidney and part of her liver. Given the extensive nature of her surgery Carol was in the hospital for a week. But true to her personality, she quickly bounced back. The pathology results indicated a leiomyosarcoma; rare cancer that is typically high risk for recurrence. Once thru the surgery, numerous consultations were made which led us to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

Carolyn ThornburgTo our surprise, the doctors at MD Anderson did not recommend chemotherapy and told us she was free to go. We were informed she would be monitored every 3 months due to the high risk of recurrence. All went well until early summer 2009 when the growth reappeared. The journey began with chemotherapy. A “cocktail” of chemo nick-named the “red devil” was prescribed and to be administered over a 72 hour time period in the hospital. Of course, Carol came through this treatment determined, strong and resilient as ever. We celebrated as the next scan showed no evidence of a tumor; with instructions to monitor for potential recurrence.

September 2010 the cancer was back… At this point anther surgery was scheduled. This surgery was performed at MD Anderson and was less stress on her system than the initial surgery. She did lose some sensation in her hip and thigh, but other than that, the surgery was fairly routine and uneventful. Again, quick recovery. So we started 2011 with no evidence of a tumor and plans were made for more chemotherapy to “mop-up”.

Once through chemotherapy, the plan was to continue to monitor her every three months for potential recurrence. Carol was cancer free until spring 2012; when doctors discovered the cancer had recurred. This time the doctors decided to try a new drug, Votrient. Votrient is a drug used to treat late-stage kidney cancer. However, Carol’s body did not react well to the drug. She lost weight and experienced constant pain. So by late summer, Carol was taken off Votrient and placed on a new “cocktail” of chemo. This new chemo was unfortunately unsuccessful in stopping the growth of the cancer.

Carolyn Thornburg3By spring of 2013 we had exhausted all resources through MD Anderson, but Carol continued her fight. We were referred to a doctor in Mexico City. Carol was to receive a drug not yet approved in the U.S., but available in 80 countries including Mexico and Canada. She was given two rounds of this drug in 24 hour hospitalized cycles. After two trips to Mexico City scans indicated that the drug was unsuccessful in shrinking the cancer. Carol did not let this setback affect her determination and optimism. She continued researching options and discovered hope in New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering and at Boston’s Dana Farber cancer Institute. Memorial Sloan informed her that surgery would be too risky due to metastases to the liver. Carol remained undeterred, we went to Dana Farber Hospital for a surgery and oncology consult. While at Dana Farber, Carol discovered she would be accepted into a clinical trial. A blood test was required to make sure her liver function was within the trial guidelines. Again, more disappointment. Carol’s liver was failing, so she no longer qualified for the study. But, that still did not stop Carol. She had a radiation consultation and was informed that she was a candidate for radiation treatments. The fall of 2013 she bravely traveled to Boston for 20 days of radiation therapy which she received every week day. True to Carol, she embraced the treatment and the city alike. Family flew to Boston to keep her company and all seemed so hopeful.

However, that hope was short lived. Almost immediately upon return from Boston, Carol became ill. She tried so hard to resume her normal activities with family and friends but was progressively declining in health. Carol fought to the end, maintaining hope in each day. However, to our sadness, on Sunday, January 19, 2014, Carol passed in our home. As I sat holding her, telling her how much I loved her, I was thankful that she was able to pass on in her way; just the two of us, at home and in my arms. Cancer may have her body, but her soul lives on with lessons of strength, determination and optimism.