While brushing her teeth in the bathroom of the Provo Missionary Training Center, finance student and Brigham Young University track runner Kate Thomas saw a concerning lump on her neck. As Thomas confronted the unexpected cancer diagnosis that soon followed, her mission, career, and life plans were changed forever.
Ever since she was a little girl, Thomas had big dreams. She made it a point to plan out her life on the whiteboard in her childhood bedroom. “The left side of my whiteboard had all of my big plans,” Thomas explains. “The middle was my daily goals. Then, the right side was an hour-by-hour schedule for my day.”
With these plans in mind, Thomas entered her first year at BYU, telling herself, “I’m going to run this first year of track, then I’m going to major in biology and be on the pre-med track, and then I’m going to go serve a mission.”
Thomas entered the MTC to prepare for her mission to Russia for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Assigned to serve as a sister training leader while in the MTC, she was in charge of the medical care of everyone in her zone, including two sister missionaries who had to go home for health reasons.
In her eighth week there, she discovered a lump on her neck. “There were no symptoms,” she recalls. “I’d probably had it for years growing there, but I didn’t realize it, and no one else did either.” She said to herself, “I'm going to Russia for 18 months, so I should probably get that checked before I leave.”
The lump that she discovered turned out to be a cancerous tumor. “I got my test results the day before my flight to Russia,” Thomas says. It was papillary thyroid cancer.
Within the span of a week, all the plans she had envisioned fell apart—her whiteboard suddenly erased. Instead of going to Russia, she started treatment to extract the tumor from her neck. The treatment consisted of a surgery to remove her thyroid and other infected lymph nodes in her neck along with intense recovery precautions to help her live a normal life.
“I was diagnosed in November 2019, and I had surgery in December right after that,” Thomas shares. “It was a really rough surgery and took 12 weeks to recover. I also had to start this iodine-free diet, which was horrible. I couldn’t eat any salt for two and a half weeks.”
Thomas found the recovery process very isolating. “The hardest thing was when I was home during treatment,” she says. “I didn't have a job. I wasn’t in school. I had nothing but the cancer stuff going on,” Thomas says.
In the thick of her recovery, she received even more challenging news. “When COVID hit, I couldn’t get cleared to go back out on my mission because I had a medical issue,” Thomas says.
Picking up the pieces of her old self, she went back to what she knew she was good at—school and track. She called up the head coach of the track team and asked to be put back on the roster.
Her plan to serve a mission was not the only thing that changed because of her cancer treatment. “I saw the nitty gritties of doctor life and started rethinking things,” Thomas recalls. Spending so much time in hospitals helped her realize that medicine wasn’t a fit for her.
Not knowing what to change her major to, Thomas turned to her father. “My dad went to Wharton’s MBA program, and he said I should definitely do finance,” says Thomas. “I loved my Finance 201 class. So I majored in finance from there.”
The finance program in the BYU Marriott School of Business is a place where Thomas can push herself and harness her drive and determination to succeed. “In business, it just feels like there’s endless possibilities. There's no cap on anything,” says Thomas.
After almost four years of being in remission, Thomas is grateful for experiences she has had. Upon graduating in December, Thomas plans to become a financial consultant at Sunrise Technologies and use her degree—just as she once used her whiteboard—to continue setting goals and plotting her future.
She also plans to use what she has learned to connect with people in both a personal and professional way. “This experience with cancer and all my plans falling through has given me a new confidence,” says Thomas. “It’s given me a new ability to connect with and support people.”
Written by Kacee Call