Tori Thomas and her mom, Melissa Caldwell, enjoy a long-awaited moment at the University of Cincinnati following an arduous climb to finish her degree. photo/Joseph Fuqua II
Race against time
UC graduate’s rare disease forces her to treasure every remaining moment.
By John Bach
Dec. 8, 2017
Tori Thomas has known since October that her fight with cancer is finished.
“The battle is over, and I have lost,” the 24-year-old recently blogged. “This is me telling all of you that I’m dying. I can’t tell you what it’s like to know that this Christmas will be the last one you ever have with your family, because those kinds of feelings don’t have words.”
She is one of 2,321 new University of Cincinnati graduates who qualified to walk in fall commencement ceremonies, but the geology major wouldn't be in her cap and gown at BB&T arena with her classmates. Instead, she and her husband of six months were spending quality time in Disneyland. Call it the honeymoon she never was able to enjoy.
She and husband Nelson, who she met just 18 months ago, were set to get married in November, but after doctors informed them in May that her cancer — pericardial synovial sarcoma, an extremely rare disease — had returned for a third time, they moved things along drastically. In fact, they were on a plane to Vegas that very night.
“By 8 p.m., we were on a flight to Nevada,” she says. “I want this life with Nelson, and I want it to be as long as possible.”
The cruel irony of Tori’s story is that she spent most of her short life indifferent about living, and now that she may be reaching the end of it, all she really cares about is embracing every moment she has left.
“How do you go through an entire 24 years of life just not caring, and some of the time even wishing you were dead or not caring either way?” she asks through tears. “Then suddenly you have this really fulfilling life. My family is everything to me, and I have this amazing husband who I love. Then it all gets ripped away from you, and you don’t have a choice anymore. You never cared about it before, but now that it’s actually something that you are willing to fight for, you can’t have it.”
"Then suddenly you have this really fulfilling life. … You never cared about it before, but now that it’s actually something that you are willing to fight for, you can’t have it."
‒ Tori Thomas
Depression at a young age
Her fight actually began long ago. Tori was diagnosed with depression at age 12. By her sophomore year at Batavia High School, east of Cincinnati, she had turned to self-harm as a coping mechanism, cutting and sometimes even burning herself. It wasn't long before she was hospitalized following a suicide attempt. Doctors and therapists put her on medication, and while she stopped hurting herself, she still struggled with depression into her college years.
A gifted student in everything from math to language arts, college studies came easy to her when she enrolled at UC in 2011. She dabbled in business, astronomy and even flirted with the idea of becoming an astrophysicist. By her sophomore year, she was taking a heavy course load and working a full-time restaurant gig to pay for her apartment and tuition.
But her early sucess was short-lived, a co-worker began sexually harassing her, which she says “triggered a really bad period in my life.” Soon her grades started plummeting, and she stopped going to class altogether. “I was literally in bed for like two or three weeks,” she says. “My mom could tell something was off. She came and took me home to her house, and I started living there.” Tori ultimately admitted she needed help and sought treatment again.
Living at home near Batavia, she enrolled at UC Clermont, and in her second semester there, she discovered her passion for geology. She credits Amanda Hunt, an associate professor of geology, for inspiring it all.
“I could not stop studying,” she shares. “I was so excited to go to class. I was really into minerals and how each element in chemistry comes together to make each mineral that makes up the world we are in. The tiniest of things can come together and create such a vast variety, from the mountains to the core of the earth.”
Tori's UC Clermont professor immediately recognized her student's keen understanding of the material.
"Tori was able to see profound interconnectedness between the order of physical sciences of Earth and the elements from the Big Bang that bind together all life and souls throughout Earth history," says associate professor Hunt. "She found meaning in our relationship with nature through the billions of years of geologic time.
"She got it! Both the science and the deep significance of time, materials, processes, interconnections, and personal philosophical perspective."
UPDATE: Professor Donates Scholarship
Once this story became public, Professor Hunt established and sponsored a scholarship in Tori's name at UC Clermont for an undergraduate student who wants to pursue a career in geology. Hunt's gift will allow for a $1,000 scholarship for five years. Those interested in contributing toward the award can do so here. (Click the box that says "Choose an area for this gift to support," then type "Tori Thomas Geology Scholarship" in the "Other" field.)
Science and faith collide
Discovering the secrets beneath the world’s basic building blocks excited Tori and even deepened her faith in God.
“Learning how much time and power is involved and how everything just comes together so perfectly, to me was further evidence of my faith,” she explains. “Something can’t come from nothing.”
Digging beneath the surface of things was common for Tori. As a child, she often took apart complex toys to satisfy her curiosities.
“I remember specifically having a Barbie cash register, and I wanted to see how everything was put together,” she says. “I did that with a lot of things. Anytime my mom was missing the screwdriver or tools, she would have to check my room, because I’d be like taking my Furby apart to see why they do what they do.”
Determined to dive deeper into geology, Tori returned to main campus during her junior year and began taking core classes. She also helped found the undergraduate geology club and started traveling on field trips to Niagara Falls, Mammoth Caves and local fossil-rich roadcuts. She started doing research work in the lab of former UC professor Eva Enkelmann, where the professor was determining the ages of rock samples from the coast of Alaska.
“She taught me a lot,” Tori says of her mentor. “I loved working with her. She really wanted to make sure I understood the information. She was very influential.”
By summer of 2015, Tori was well on her way toward her degree, but she had no idea the uphill climb she was about to face in order to finish.
Cancer diagnosis in 2015
While babysitting for a friend, Tori noticed her stomach was bloated and she was short of breath after only a brisk walk. A few days later, she laid down to sleep and “felt as though someone lowered an anvil onto my chest.” She slept sitting up that night to relieve the pain and the next morning went to an urgent care facility, which sent her to the ER. A sonogram revealed a massive amount of fluid around her heart, and the doctors removed a liter of fluid. She spent 12 days in intensive care before she could go home.
Soon after, the surgeon called to break the news that she had cancer, a form so rare that there have been only 30 recorded cases. “I fell off the couch and onto my knees sobbing,” Tori says.
She underwent full open-heart surgery at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to remove a tumor that was attached to the top of her heart, followed by six months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Institute (UCCI).
Tori’s mother, Melissa Caldwell, has been by her daughter’s side for all of it — every surgery, every scan, every treatment. She can’t say enough good things about the care she has received at Children’s and UCCI.
“I can't imagine her being treated anywhere else,” says Caldwell. “Oh my gosh, it has been incredible. It's not just the medicine. It is treating her as a whole person.”
Still, the whole process has been gut-wrenching for Caldwell and the family, including Tori’s three sisters.
“As a mom, you want more than anything to take care of your kids and make sure they succeed and have a happy life,” says Caldwell. “The only thing I can say is that her faith has helped her a lot, and she hasn’t lost her joy.”
While Tori didn't walk for her commencement, she did come to campus for photos in the same cap and gown her mom, Melissa Caldwell, wore when she graduated from UC. photos/Joseph Fuqua II
Tori missed the fall semester of 2015, but, amazingly, she returned to her studies at UC in January 2016.
“The geology department was always extremely helpful and accommodating,” Tori recalls. “I can’t even express how much it meant to me that all the professors were more than willing to bend over backwards for me.”
By fall of 2016, however, she was sick again. Another tumor meant another surgery and radiation every weekday morning for five weeks. Still, she stayed in school. Though Tori made preparations to graduate in the spring of 2017, her plans were delayed yet again when her cancer returned for a third time in May. This time, the tumor required surgeons to remove half her diaphragm and the bottom part of her heart. And still, they didn’t get it all.
“They knew when they did the surgery that they didn’t get clean margins, which means they knew there were still some of the cancer cells left,” Tori says.
As a final effort, doctors ordered more radiation in hopes to eliminate the remaining cancer cells.They even discussed the possibility of a heart transplant if the procedure proved positive.
Instead, her scans in October, revealed yet another tumor, this time on the lining of her lung.
“You can only get so much chemo in your lifetime,” says Tori. “So that wasn’t an option anymore. This is obviously not something that is going to stop suddenly one day. It is going to keep coming back.”
She says while friends and family, as well as her doctors, have researched and suggested experimental trials, she has resolved to instead spend quality time with her family in her remaining months. It’s why she chose to travel to Disneyland rather than walk during UC's fall commencement.
Knowing she couldn’t be there in person, the UC geology department sent her diploma in the mail.
“I was really worried that I would die without having that diploma,” she says. “Of course, I can’t really go out and get a job, but I worked my ass off for that degree.”
Tori’s professors couldn’t agree more.
“She keeps up an amazing and positive spirit despite of all the things she's gone through,” says Professor Carlton Brett, director of the geology undergraduate program in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. “She's been one of our top students and was always the one who would ask and answer questions in class.”
Brett nominated Tori for the Myles Redder Award, a $2,000 award given each year in honor of Redder, a 2008 geology student who died tragically at the age of 23 following a skateboarding accident on campus.
“Despite life's sometimes daunting hardships, you have fostered a great sense of community because of your upbeat and brilliant personality,” Brett wrote in the letter that accompanied her diploma. “You have overcome major obstacles to complete your degree, and you should be very proud of your accomplishments as we are.
“Not only have you been among our top students, you have been an important role model and an inspiration to all of us. Thank you for all that you have done. Know that you will always be loved and respected by the geology department.”
Through it all, Tori leans into her faith and her incredible support system.
“Sometimes I feel like this is really hard, and it really sucks,” she says. “And sometimes I feel like it’s actually pretty easy because I have so many people that love me. I hardly have anything to worry about.”
Those who love her say that's a typical reaction from Tori.
"She is the strongest person I have ever known," her mom says. "I tell people that I want to be like her when I grow up. She's taught me so much about faith, life and living."