In the News

Hazel Thomas’ Story | Survivor lives life in spite of chronic diagnosis

It was February 2001 when Hazel Thomas received news that would change her life forever.

She was seeing her primary care physician for her annual checkup, which included routine blood work. She left feeling accomplished that she’d checked that task off her to-do list, so she was surprised when she heard from the physician a couple days later.

“I get this telephone call,” she said, “and my doctor said, ‘Your white blood count is up to 72,000; you have leukemia. You need to see an oncologist.’ I was devastated. I was 55 and had no idea what an oncologist even was.” 

The official diagnosis was Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia “CLL”, a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow. While CLL may not cause any symptoms for years, the symptoms can present themselves through swollen lymph nodes, fatigue and easy bruising.

After processing the news of her diagnosis, which she admits she immediately interpreted as a “death sentence,” Hazel made an appointment with Dr. Balan Nair at CARTI. Together, they chose to start her on chemotherapy treatments. 

Over the next three months, Hazel went through chemotherapy with little to no side effects. Because of her positive experience, she says her mindset changed. “I told myself, ‘I guess you’re not going to die. Get on with your life.”

And that’s exactly what she’s done. 

Hazel is now 74 years old and she continues to work as an executive assistant at Crow-Burlingame Company/Bumper to Bumper in the corporate office in Little Rock.

But because CLL is a chronic disease, the past 19 years haven’t been without medical issues or stress. 

In 2017, Thomas developed an upper respiratory infection that was made worse by her leukemia. “The leukemia ate up my antibodies, so I have nothing to fight off infections.” 

To help her body protect itself, Hazel now receives IVIG — intravenous immunoglobulin — infusion therapy. She will continue to receive this infusion therapy once a month for the rest of her life. 

“When you have blood cancer, you live life in limbo,” she said. “You can’t do anything about it yourself. I’ve had chemo off and on for 19 years and now I’m supposed to take this whopping 7 ½ hour infusion every four weeks.”

Thomas has been very private about her cancer. Even within the company she’s worked at for the past 12 years, Hazel admits “my bosses know about my leukemia, but not many others do.” 

But now she wants to share her story, saying, “If I can touch one person by sharing my story, that’s what I want to do. I want to tell people that cancer isn’t always a death sentence.”

She encourages other patients facing a similar diagnosis to “turn it over to God. You can still be effective at work and at home.”

Hazel gets by with the help of her family and friends. But she also says she finds hope through her love for the Razorbacks. “I am a huge sports fan. I love the Razorbacks, and I still spend a lot of time in Fayetteville.”

Now, this patient who at one point felt like her diagnosis was a ‘death sentence’ today calls herself “BLESSED. My faith, everyone’s prayers and trusting in the Lord gets me through each day.”

Today, Hazel serves on the Patient and Family Advisory Council, where she helps evaluate and look for opportunities to improve CARTI’s patient experience.