Donor Spotlight 

The Discovery Program honours an amazing woman and an “incredible pool of talent”


The Thomas Family
Dr. Ralph Gilbert (far left) takes Nevil and Rebecca Thomas on a tour on a tour of the new Endoscopy Suite that features cutting edge equipment provided by support from donors to The Discovery Program.

Susanne Thomas lived for 10 years with a slow growing, rare form of Head & Neck cancer. She knew from the beginning that it was terminal. But in all that time, Susanne never let her illness define her. She maintained her fabulous sense of humour and her compassion for others.

“As her illness worsened, she didn’t lose any of her grace or her strength,” says her daughter, Rebecca. “I hope that if and when I am faced with something like that, I will be able to handle it as well as she did. She was amazing.”

Susanne, or “Su” to those closest to her, was a private person. She went through multiple surgeries, two rounds of radiation and two experimental drug treatments, but she just “dealt with it,” says Rebecca. “She didn’t want to impose on other people. She would hate me using the word, but Mum was a brave person.”

Rebecca is certain her mother was able to have all of those extra years with her husband, Nevil, and four children because of the expertise of her team at The Princess Margaret.

“We were fortunate to have Dr. Ralph Gilbert as her surgical oncologist, and Dr. John Waldron, who looked after her radiation and MRIs. Dr. Lillian Siu was also a great help to Mum after radiation and surgery were no longer an option,” says Rebecca. “Thanks to their collective skill and expertise, we kept the cancer at bay for 10 years.”

Rebecca is grateful for the support provided to the entire family, both during treatment and after her mother’s death.

“We were surrounded by the team at all times, everyone was so lovely,” she remembers. “The hospital staff would tell her about the private little spots where she could go for a nap or find some cookies. I know she took a great deal of comfort from being able to nest between treatments.”

The Thomases were particularly taken with Dr. Gilbert, who would sit quietly with the family and focus on their concerns.

“We knew he had the biggest caseload, and had probably just finished performing complex surgery, but he made us feel as if he had nowhere else to be,” says Rebecca. “He would answer our questions as many times as we asked them.”

Susanne and Nevil began to ask Dr. Gilbert how they could help the Head & Neck team at The Princess Margaret.

“They started out buying smaller pieces of equipment, then they decided to fund a full Discovery Program,” says Rebecca. “The initial plan was for a five-year fund that would enable the Head & Neck program to grow, but now we want the fund to have an even greater impact going forward.

“Our experience with our mother being treated at The Princess Margaret, and our subsequent experience with the Foundation and the Head & Neck team, both as donors and as family members, is that we recognize how lucky we are in Canada – not just Toronto – to have such an incredible pool of talent in Head & Neck.”

The goal of The Discovery Program is to extend the lives of people with Head & Neck cancers, eventually turning it into a chronic disease that can be managed. The program is funding development of new surgical techniques and new drugs that will target specific mutations that are driving this extremely difficult form of cancer. The fund is also supporting cutting-edge research into new treatments that will reverse the damage to tissue caused by radiation.

Another big focus of the fund is psychosocial and survivorship support that’s designed for the particular needs of Head & Neck cancer patients and their families.

“Sometimes you lose your ability to speak, eating becomes a problem, and the facial differences are often quite noticeable after treatment,” explains Rebecca. “Basic life is affected in ways that are visibly different from many other cancers.”

Following the original gift that set up the fund, Rebecca raised money through The Princess Margaret’s Ride to Conquer Cancer, and the whole family is actively fundraising through the Cancer Centre’s 5K Journey to Conquer Cancer.

“I’m really excited because our team is a growing force to be reckoned with! Our family has not only joined the hospital team, but we’ve also joined forces with another family who just lost their matriarch as well to Head & Neck cancer, who was also treated at The Princess Margaret.”

Three years after Susanne’s passing, The Thomas Family’s commitment to The Discovery Program remains a strong as ever.

“We really believe in the fund, which was established in Mum’s honour when she was alive, and now honours her memory,” says Rebecca. “She was really an amazing woman, so it’s great to have such an important program attached to her memory that also pays tribute to all of the people who have been lost to Head & Neck cancer.”

If you would like to contribute to The Discovery Program, or make a transformative gift to Head & Neck cancer, please contact Clayton Atto at (416) 946-2128 or clayton.atto@thepmcf.ca.

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