By Heather Killen
Twenty-six years ago Nelly Thompson had it all, living in a brand new house with new furniture, no mortgage to repay, and a nice collection of crystal animals.
“I was the most unhappy person,” she said. “And then I had cancer.”
She recalls the day they found the cancer she was in the hospital for minor surgery on her big toe. Another doctor happened to come in the room to watch the procedure and noticed a suspicious spot under her nail and suggested it be tested.
A few days later, she was alone at home when the phone rang with the dreaded news.
“Its not like on television when they take you into a room and tell you gently,” she said. “I was sitting home alone on the coach when they called to tell me. After they said the word cancer, I don’t remember anything else.”
It was malignant melanoma.
It wasn’t long before surgery was booked and her big toe was removed as a precaution. While this surgery saved her life, it has also resulted in some long-term problems with balance and circulation, she said.
These days she counts herself very lucky, as one of the other cancer patients she knew then died within months of his surgery. At the time however, Thompson said what was happening to her seemed like a bad joke.
“I was 25 years old, what do you mean I have cancer? I was so bitter,” she said.
Gradually things began to turn around for her, beginning with her miracle baby, daughter Melissa. Because Thompson’s health was still at risk, the doctors advised her against having the baby.
She insisted on going through with her pregnancy and told herself that she would keep going through each new health scare, and live to see that baby turn 18 years old.
“Life isn’t a fairy tale. God doesn’t make bad things happen, He gives you the strength to go through the bad things,” she said. “You may be the only person feeling it, but other people are going through it with you.”
Her father’s death from bowel cancer a few years later also had a profound impact on her life. He became interested in reading the Bible and reconnecting with God, she said. Melissa had been going to Sunday school, so Thompson decided she too would go back to church.
“God has helped me to overcome the bitterness I felt,” she said. “Church has brought community into my life, our belief in God brings us together.”
While she still has serious health scares from time to time, she has been cancer-free for over 25 years. Last year marked the 25 anniversary of her initial diagnosis and now, at the age of 51, she says she wants to put the cancer experience behind her.
These days Thompson says she’s all about her latest miracle, grandson Jacob, who will turn two in July. And now for her, life isn’t so much about a collection of pretty things.
“You have to appreciate life every day, because you don’t know when it’s your last day,” she said. “It isn’t what you have, it’s who you have. God sends people into our lives and they leave a spot on your heart, some good, some bad.”
For many years Thompson participated in the annual Relay For Life and says that it’s tremendous support and comfort to anyone with cancer. When the sea of yellow survivors’ shirts join together, suddenly no one is walking alone.
“When you start walking that track (in the survivor’s lap of the relay) you see the track is lined with people on both sides and there’s someone for everyone along that track,” she said.
“Even though the reason you are there (having cancer) is not all that special, you are together with so many others and somehow feel very special.”
This year’s Relay For Life is Middleton’s 10th and takes place at Rotary Park on June 8 starting at 7 p.m.