Thomas Walsh’s email signature includes the phrase, “No struggle, no progress.” It’s a motto that Thomas, 27, has lived by since he was a teenager. An avid skier who has been competing since he was just 5 years old, he faced a different kind of opponent when he was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma at age 14.
This type of cancer affects the bones or soft tissues. In Thomas’ case, it had started in his pelvis and spread to his lungs. The diagnosis was “a full reality check,” says Thomas. As his mother, Kathleen, searched for an oncologist experienced in treating the disease, Thomas worried about the future. He was slated to attend ski academy in Vermont that fall. “I didn’t really know much about cancer then,” he remembers. “My diagnosis changed everything — and I wasn’t sure I would even be able to still be an athlete.”
Finding the right specialists
Thomas underwent surgery in his home state of Colorado, but he wasn’t symptom free. The tumor had initially pressed on his pelvis and bladder, causing urinary and gastrointestinal problems. Although surgeons removed it, the procedure left Thomas with a hole in his bladder, which allowed urine to leak into his abdomen. His mother knew it was time to find a urologist.
Kathleen, who had grown up in Rhode Island, knew that Boston Children’s Department of Urology would be her best bet. While visiting Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center in search of a new oncologist for Thomas, she decided to drop by Boston Children’s Department of Urology to see if she could meet with a urologist.
“I left a note with the receptionist saying I needed a doctor who was experienced treating complicated cases,” she says. Half an hour later, she received a call from Dr. Carlos Estrada, who is now the hospital’s chief of urology. “He listened to our story and said he thought he could help Thomas.”
Forging his own path
Thomas would soon restart chemotherapy and then radiation. But first, Dr. Estrada created a temporary solution to his leakage by creating a tube from part of his large intestine that would drain urine from his kidneys through a small opening in his abdomen called a stoma. “I hated it,” Thomas admits. “But I liked that Dr. Estrada was honest with me. He didn’t talk down to me or sugarcoat things, and that made me feel like I had some control over my health.”
What’s more, the procedure allowed Thomas to attend ski academy. He experienced side effects of chemotherapy, urinated through the tube, and was about to move across country from his mom — but he was ready. “It allowed me to move on and forge my own path to my future,” he says. “I learned that I didn’t need to be the fastest skier or the best. I was just doing it again, and that was enough.”
In new athletic career, a gift
The following year, Thomas was cancer free and Dr. Estrada reconnected his bladder — another step in allowing him to move ahead. Thomas had long had an interest in film and the performing arts, which he chose to pursue after graduating from high school. “I put competitive skiing behind me,” he says. But then his mother raised an interesting question: Could he compete as a para athlete?
The answer, it turned out, was ‘yes.’
After getting the all-clear from Dr. Estrada and the rest of his clinicians, Thomas qualified for the U.S. Paralympics alpine skiing national team. Although he still has some side effects of cancer treatment — and must undergo annual screening to ensure that the cancer hasn’t returned — “he’s beaten the odds,” says Kathleen. And he no longer experiences urinary complications. “We believe Dr. Estrada truly performed a miracle.”
In the decade since joining the team, Thomas has competed around the world, most recently bringing home a silver medal from the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing, China. “I’m still doing what I always dreamed about,” he explains. “The word just turned from ‘Olympian’ to ‘Paralympian’ — and I see that as a gift.”
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