An Aspiring Journalist, Former DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan Leukemia Patient Offers Words of Wisdom to Others

Spend a few minutes with Cambrey Thomas and it’s easy to see how a positive attitude is leading to her road to success. That attitude, she is happy to tell you, is also essential when you are faced with a terminal illness.

Cambrey, 23, was an active child growing up and especially enjoyed Girl Scouts and summer camps. The day after a sleepover with friends when she was 10, she and her mother René noticed bruises all over her body. “When Cambrey came home with all of those bruises I became very concerned,” says René, a Detroit resident.

Cambrey Thomas acute myeloid leukemia

Over the next several months, there were also subtle clues that something was not quite right. “All of a sudden I became extremely tired during gym and would even fall asleep in class,” recalls Cambrey. She received a wake up call in the winter of 1998 when she literally woke up on the wrong side of the bed. “Cambrey had a perfuse nosebleed that I could not stop for more than one hour,” says René . She took her to the emergency room where the nose bleeds continued for hours. Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan were able to relieve the nose bleeds, but then focused on what was causing the condition. After undergoing several tests, Cambery says the news was not good. “I remember seeing several doctors and their eyes were red as one explained that I had leukemia.” Cambrey remembers a humorous moment right after the diagnosis that made the doctors and family chuckle a little bit. That laughter and positive attitude was something she said became crucial in coping with the challenging road ahead. During that time, there was an orange juice ad suggesting if you drank orange juice that you would be healthy and it would protect you from cancer. “I told the doctors that I couldn’t have cancer because I drank orange juice every morning.”

Cambrey was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), one of the most common types of leukemia more normally seen in adults, and was seen by Jeffrey Taub, MD, hematologist/oncologist at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. “I really liked Dr. Taub and felt a special connection since he shared with me that he had leukemia when he was a child which is why he chose to be a cancer specialist today.” Cambrey was also diagnosed with leukemia around the same time Dr. Taub’s niece was diagnosed with leukemia and spent time with her at the hospital. “I didn’t realize it at the time because I was so young, but being around Dr. Taub and hanging out with his niece at the hospital made it feel like I was not alone and anyone could be diagnosed with the disease.”

Dr. Taub suggested that Cambrey should undergo a bone marrow transplant, but there were no bone marrow matches available in the family so Dr. Taub recommended an aggressive treatment involving intense chemotherapy. The prognosis for AML at the time was very guarded. Fortunately Cambrey responded well to the first line chemotherapy treatment available at the time. The treatment required frequent hospitalizations and she was unable to attend school as her immune system was severely suppressed. “Despite everything she went through including being away from school and friends for a long period of time, I was always impressed at how Cambrey maintained a positive attitude,” says Dr. Taub.

Fortunately for Cambrey, she responded quite well to the intensive treatment and feels blessed her cancer is considered to be in complete remission. Although her treatment was considered a success, she hit some rough patches academically when she returned to school and initially did not know why. “For the first two years after treatment, I had a very hard time in school, where I didn’t remember things and was especially struggling with math. Her situation improved quite a bit after receiving tutoring. Cambrey remembered that teachers thought she wasn’t trying or perhaps faking it and it really bothered her because she was always a good student.

She worked very hard in her high school at Detroit School of the Arts and was accepted to Northwestern University in Chicago where she pursued a degree in magazine journalism and multimedia arts. She went to a counselor while at the university to see if she might have a learning disability since she was still struggling with math. After doing research, she found out about cognitive late effects from chemotherapy that can affect learning. “When my teachers said I may not be trying, it really bothered me and made me work even harder to succeed in school.”

And succeed at school she has.

Cambrey Thomas smiling

Cambrey is currently enrolled at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York and expects to graduate in May, 2011. She is interning at Gourmet Live, formerly Gourmet Magazine and has numerous writing credits to her name including writing a chapter for the book Planet Cancer on her experience being treated with chemotherapy. She also founded Detroit Girls About Town, a Detroit lifestyle blog and writes for The Brooklyn Ink.

In terms of words of wisdom for others newly diagnosed with leukemia, she suggests taking advantage of help such as cancer support groups and camps that she found out about through social workers at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Those programs really helped her cope and not feel isolated since she could relate to others going through a similar situation. “I always told Cambrey to tell her story but not to live in it,” says René. Cambrey emphasizes above all, keep a positive attitude. “Even when I was undergoing chemotherapy and it was really hard on my body, I was thankful that I was alive. Being positive is contagious and makes all the difference in the world when you are faced with something so serious.”

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