Tomas Nichols finished his leukemia treatments almost nine years ago, but he’s never put the disease behind him.
It’s not that the 17-year-old sits around, worrying that acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, will return. Instead, he thinks about what it’s like for others, maybe even 5-year-old kids who get sick as he did. Or, he considers their families, remembering how his illness affected his parents, Paul and Lenka Nichols, and his older and younger sisters, Tereza and Anna.
The memories propel the young man to fight the disease that claimed at least four of his friends. Since 2007, when he was well enough to walk in his first event to raise money, Tomas has been collecting donations for the Light the Night event to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Back then, he set his fundraising goal at $100,000 and hoped to reach it before college. Instead, he hit that mark—and is still raising more—before starting his senior year at North Stafford High School.
“I want everyone’s lives to be easier, if they’re going through blood cancer or leukemia,” he said.
Tomas doesn’t say a lot about his own experience, but his dad does after Tomas nods that it’s OK to talk about it. Paul Nichols, a retired Marine, recites the litany the same way people remember the date of Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks.
His son dealt with leukemia for 1,164 days, from Sept. 6, 2007, to Nov. 9, 2010. The last treatment ended at 11:35 p.m., and the father half-jokingly says he wanted to stretch it out until Nov. 10, the Marine Corps birthday.
Tomas endured sometimes-daily chemotherapy, 23 spinal taps, five bone marrow scrapes and three surgeries. At one point, doctors thought he might need a bone-marrow transplant—and Anna was determined to be his donor—but that wasn’t required.
The family heard about the Light the Night event the first year of Tomas’ illness, just a few weeks before the fundraiser, but still managed to collect $1,900.
“We went on the walk, and they treated him like a superstar,” the dad said.
From that point on, Tomas and Anna turned fundraising almost into part-time jobs. Their father drove them around their Hampton Oaks neighborhood, and the two kids knocked on doors, handed out pamphlets and shared their story, adding that “any help would be appreciated,” Tomas recalled.
Some gave donations, others walked with the family. Some did both.
The siblings also set up lemonade stands in the neighborhood. A year after his diagnosis, when he was taking 30 pills a day to keep his body systems functioning properly, Tomas, then 6, said he wanted a “one-pill cure” for the disease, and the phrase became his fundraising mantra.
As the two have gotten older—Anna turns 16 this week—they’ve done more outreach on social media and less canvassing the neighborhood. Recent reminders on Instagram helped push the total fundraising of “Team Tomas” over the goal.
It’s an amazing milestone, said Khiem Tran, a campaign manager with the Light the Night event who’s known Tomas since 2016.
“The fact that he reached and exceeded his lifetime fundraising goal is incredible,” he said. “It’s a truly commendable accomplishment that serves as an incredible example to others. Myself included.”
Tomas may not be the most vocal person in the room, Tran said, but his dedication and perseverance speak volumes. With Anna, he’s raised thousands, not only through Light the Night but also with the society’s partnership with IHOP Pancake Day.
Tomas received treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and when he visits Bethesda for annual checkups or allergy appointments, he visits the oncology wing and says hi to the workers. “Nurse Tiffany” and “Nurse Julie” were among his favorites—and made such an impact that he wants to follow in their footsteps.
He’s not interested in being a doctor but wants to be a nurse because “nurses are more hands-on with the patients,” Tomas said. “They’re the ones providing the care.”
Anna wants to do the same.
Tomas already got his emergency medical technician certification through a countywide class offered at Colonial Forge High School, and he’s already set up a part-time job with Commonwealth EMS, which provides nonemergency medical transports.
Anna is taking the same class this year.
Tomas also is an Eagle Scout who earned the award by organizing the annual Light the Night event, coordinating dozens of volunteers, lining up security and arranging the route. He plays school lacrosse, trombone in the marching band and is the drum major this year. He’s also got a 4.20 grade point average, his dad proudly pointed out.
This year’s Light the Night walk is planned Oct. 19 at Mary Washington Hospital. It’s about 10 weeks away, but so far, Tomas Nichols is the leading fundraiser and “Team Tomas” is at the top of the list of friends and family teams.
ON THE NET:
lightthenight.org/events/fredericksburg#tmm or by calling 877/LTN-WALK.