Social Media Is Helping My Brother Fight Kidney Cancer 

My brother exhausted his life savings on treatment for his disease. Now, our only recourse is to ask friends—and strangers—for help.


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The generosity of so many strangers has renewed Rick’s determination to get well and provides him with an enormous sense of relief that his medical bills will be paid.

—Annie Howell

My brother, Rick Thomas, is a great guy. I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother. He’s funny, warm, and kind to everyone he meets. He became a commercial airline pilot for American Airlines after flying C-5s in the Air Force for 12 years and has always been a responsible person and a diligent saver. He has invested wisely to ensure that his wife Suzette and their three young children, aged 4, 6, and 10, can have financial security. 

But a diagnosis last February of chromophobe renal cell carcinoma has put all his careful financial planning in jeopardy. Now, in addition to fighting for his life, he is fighting to keep his family financially solvent. Although Rick has employer-sponsored health insurance, he is unable to keep up with the mounting cost of his cancer treatment, some of which is experimental and not covered by insurance. 

We didn’t expect his kidney cancer to be so aggressive and life-threatening. When his cancerous kidney was removed and biopsied, the pathology report showed that the malignant cells were confined to the grapefruit-size tumor and that the surrounding tissue margins were clear. 

We all breathed a sigh of relief when Rick’s oncologist said additional treatment wasn’t necessary and that he was likely cancer-free. So it was especially shocking when Rick went for follow-up 4 months after his surgery and an MRI scan showed tumors growing on his lungs and in the area where the diseased kidney had been. 

Emotional and Financial Costs

Subsequent radiation treatment and an assortment of oral and intravenous chemotherapies have so far failed to stop the cancer’s progression, and tumors are now present in Rick’s liver, diaphragm, lymph nodes, and pelvis. His prognosis is not great. Still, we are not giving up. He is now on pazopanib (Votrient), and he refuses to think of his life as grains of sand running through the hourglass; he is focused on beating his cancer.

Between being unable to work and having to pay for much of his costly treatment out-of-pocket, Rick has used up all his life savings. Fearing that he would reach a point where he still had treatment options but no way to pay for them, my siblings, parents, and I decided to hold a fundraiser to cover Rick’s living and medical expenses. We knew we would have to reach a wide range of donors to hit our target goal of $125,000, which, as it turns out, will just skim the surface of what he’ll need. 

I began researching online crowdfunding sites, and after getting advice from a tax attorney, I set up a page on GoFundMe.com. I then used social networking sites and services like Facebook and Twitter to get the word out to extended family members, friends, and colleagues about Rick’s illness and his financial need. They sent links to their families and friends, and the response has been overwhelming. After just 3 months, we’ve raised nearly $146,000 from 1,588 donors—a significant portion of the donations coming from the pilot community at American Airlines.

The Kindness of Strangers

Taking charge this way is helping me cope with my brother’s illness and makes me feel that I’m contributing to his peace of mind. The generosity of so many strangers in their donations, words of encouragement, and prayers has renewed Rick’s determination to get well and provides him with an enormous sense of relief that his medical bills will be paid and his family’s financial needs will be met.

My brother’s illness and the extreme cost of his treatment have given me a new awareness of the economic difficulty many patients in similar circumstances face. We were lucky because we knew how to use social media to mobilize hundreds of people to help our cause. Others, I know, don’t have those networking contacts or social media skills. 

This experience has been a real lesson about the true goodness of people. To pay forward their generosity, my husband and I have made contributions to the causes of others on GoFundMe.

Right now, it’s too painful for me to think of a future that doesn’t include Rick. I have to believe that he will keep fighting, that there will be another drug to try, and that he will survive. 

Annie Howell is Executive Vice President of Corporate Communications & Media Relations for Crown Media Family Networks in New York.


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