Name a wild outdoor adventure — any wild outdoor adventure — chances are, Brian Thomas has done it.
The Okeeheelee Middle School science teacher has wrestled alligators, surfed in Costa Rica, hiked across Alaska and run more than 15 marathons — including a punishing 100-mile ultra-marathon and a 1,700-mile relay run with two former students to raise money for colon cancer research.
“Brian has always been the physically fit guy who did things that were very impressive,” said Andy Winer, a business education teacher at Okeeheelee Middle in Greenacres. “He was the chiseled picture of health.”
Nothing, it seemed, could slow down Thomas’ 110-mph lifestyle.
But then something did — melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
Thomas, 35, was diagnosed this year. In April, a malignant tumor in his small intestine was surgically removed. But since then, the melanoma has spread to Thomas’ liver.
“I’m told that’s suppose to be horrible,” said Thomas, who took a leave of absence from teaching in March.
Doctors gave the Lake Worth resident only months to live. But Palm Beach County’s own Iron Man (minus the shiny suit) plans to be back to work in December.
“I miss getting in there and getting the kids’ hands dirty,” said Thomas, a Michigan native who won a Dwyer Award in 2010 for excellence in teaching. “There’s just not as much of that kind of learning going on with the emphasis on tests. But I did a lot of that.”
The road back won’t be easy — and Thomas knows it.
Since he started chemotherapy, Thomas said he’s not as sick as he was when he constantly suffered from fevers, extreme fatigue and night sweats. Switching medications has helped as well. Thomas said he’s slowly getting his strength back even though he has lost 40 pounds and is down to 145 pounds.
“I feel a lot better than I had been feeling,” Thomas said, adding that he feels bad every day, just not as bad as before.
To stay motivated, Thomas wrote a bucket list, one that he said is constantly changing. Right now, the main things on his list are running, sailing around the Gulf of Mexico and spending more time with his wife, Shar, and their 3½-year-old daughter, Gabi.
“My bucket list is really not that impressive — especially after the movie,” Thomas said, referring to the 2007 film in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman played terminally ill men (one a billionaire hospital magnate, the other a blue-collar worker) who go on a road trip with a wish list of things to do before they die. “I’d love it if I met up in chemo with a multimillionaire and then my list would really change.”
That list takes Thomas’ mind off his reality, which is spending much of his day calling doctors and dealing with mounting medical bills.
“It’s like I’m a senior citizen,” he said. “This is not how I’d like to live my 35-year-old life.”
As for Thomas’ goal of returning to Okeeheelee Middle, Winer said Thomas’ students would love to have him back.
“When you’re around Brian, there’s an energy force around him and you really feel that,” he said.
Winer recalled how Thomas would often coach kids in the weight room while blaring rock ‘n’ roll music.
“That got them all pumped up,” Winer said. “The kids really respond well to him.”
A fundraiser for Thomas is scheduled for Oct. 24 at Duffy’s Sports Grill in Greenacres. A fundraising dinner party was held during the summer at the American German Club by the mother of one of Thomas’ former students.
Fellow teachers at Okeeheelee Middle have donated 118 days of sick time to Thomas so he wouldn’t miss any paychecks. The teachers also organized the Brian Thomas 5K race in May.
“Emotionally, he’s gone through some rough times,” said Julie Greene, Okeeheelee Middle’s media specialist who beat colon cancer. “Of all the people to be sick, he’s the last person you would think of.”
Thomas said he’s writing a book about his wild adventures
Thomas is also determined to run again, something he’s done since middle school. He often dreams of it. In one, Thomas is running through picturesque mountain ranges alongside other marathon greats as a “Chariots of Fire”-ish soundtrack plays.
Despite his optimism, Thomas knows his life will never be quite the same.
“The Brian Thomas that was, that man,” he said, “is gone.”
“I think, forever,” he said.