WILKES-BARRE — Two years post-surgery following a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, Jeff Thomas is coping but still makes time to manage a program for cancer survivors at the YMCA.
Thomas, 53, of Franklin Township, spoke about dealing with cancer and the difficulties getting through each day, carrying the weight of worry that the cancer — now in remission — could come back.
Thomas is the volunteer manager of the YMCA’s “LIVESTRONG at the YMCA” program, a 12-week exercise program for cancer survivors that helps improve the participants’ well-being. There were 12 people in the inaugural session that began in April.
“It’s been an honor for me to work with these people,” Thomas said. “Each of them has a unique story. The program brings them together to share their stories and they are understood best by fellow cancer survivors. There is a sincere element of compassion attached to the program.”
For his service, Thomas is one of four to be honored tonight at the YMCA’s annual Leadership Dinner that will celebrate the organization’s 150th anniversary.
Thomas, a member of the Wilkes-Barre YMCA for more than 20 years, is the recipient of the George Brandt Community Service Award, bestowed annually to a volunteer who demonstrates exceptional service. Also being honored are:
• Thomas J. McGrath Jr. will receive the 2013 Robert K. Mericle Leadership Award, which honors an individual who demonstrates exemplary efforts in furthering the mission of the YMCA and enhancing the quality of life in the community. McGrath has been a member of the YMCA for 35 years.
• Annette Weiss, assistant professor of nursing and director of the Expressway RN-to-BSN program at Misericordia University, will be presented with the 2013 Frank M. Henry Layperson of the Year Award recognizing an “unsung hero” at the YMCA. Weiss has been a volunteer with the YMCA aquatics department since 2007.
• M&T Bank will receive the 2013 YMCA Corporate Leadership Award, recognizing the company as an exceptional corporate supporter.
Thomas was diagnosed with Stage 3 esophageal cancer in May 2011. He said his family — wife, Marion, and sons, Owen and Austin — have been tremendously supportive, but Thomas said that when his family was at work or school, he needed to find other sources of solace.
Unannounced, Thomas walked into Candy’s Place, a center in Forty Fort for cancer wellness and support, and then-Executive Director Nicole Farber welcomed him and set up a meeting with other cancer survivors.
“We sat around a table and told our stories,” Thomas said. “I cried, even wailed. I’m not embarrassed to say that. But those people and that place helped me tremendously.”
From that meeting and others, Thomas decided to help others. He said he was on the brink of giving up, but decided to make the most of his recovery and his life.
The LIVESTRONG program measures the participants’ flexibility, strength, range of motion and stamina. The group meets twice a week and all data are recorded and progress measured. At the end of the 12-week program, participants see their results.
The program consists of six exercises: sitting bench press, 6-minute walk, standing reach, balance on one foot, leg press and back scratch/stretch.
“Each person can see the improvement in how they feel,” Thomas said. “And we hope they stay on at the Y as a full member, or a volunteer.”