For Maryland women’s basketball Coach Brenda Frese’s son, a milestone day


Maryland women’s basketball Coach Brenda Frese, here holding son Tyler in March 2012, says her son has “been on a great course” as he ends his chemotherapy. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
December 3, 2013

On Tuesday evening, roughly midway between dinner time and bedtime, 5 ½-year-old Tyler Thomas swallowed a heaping spoonful of applesauce containing seven yellow, 2.5-milligram tablets of methotrexate, and in doing so reached a milestone in his 38-month battle against acute lymphoblastic leukemia: no more chemotherapy.

No more doses of mercaptopurine — also hidden in applesauce — every day after school. No more thrice-monthly methotrexate. No more monthly spinal taps at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. No more awful side effects.

“It’s like making it to the light,” said Brenda Frese, Tyler’s mother, “after more than three years in the tunnel.”

Frese, the University of Maryland women’s basketball coach, and her family – husband Mark Thomas and twin sons Tyler and Markus — didn’t plan to celebrate the milestone with anything more formal than a family photograph. After all, the battle continues. There is a surgery scheduled for Jan. 8 to remove the port in Tyler’s chest, through which his doctors and nurses have administered medication, and he will need another year and a half’s worth of blood tests until he can be deemed cured.

But the significance of Tyler’s final doses of chemotherapy was not lost on his parents, who have been waging battle alongside him since Sept. 28, 2010, when doctors first diagnosed Tyler, then 2, with cancer after his pediatrician noticed his pale skin color and ordered a blood test.

“It’s a huge exhale,” said Mark Thomas, a video journalist who, since Tyler’s diagnosis, has been a stay-at-home dad and his son’s chief caregiver. “We think about the various families we’ve met along the way, and the different endings for different families. You think about both sides of the equation. We feel extremely fortunate our son has this ending, and our hearts cry for those who didn’t have this type of ending.

“It’s still very hard to wrap my mind around everything that’s happened along this journey.”

Tyler has led a mostly normal childhood and is currently in kindergarten. His specific form of leukemia is the most common to strike children, and carries a 90 percent survival rate.

In the coming months, Tyler’s immune system — suppressed for the past three-plus years by the chemotherapy — should regenerate, which means his parents will no longer have to take him to the emergency room every time he gets a fever.

“There’s a new anxiousness that comes with the end of the chemo,” said Frese, who last month signed a contract extension with Maryland through 2021. “When he doesn’t have drugs in him, does it increase the chances the leukemia comes back? But all the indications are very positive. He’s been on a great course.”

His doctors and nurses plan to celebrate Tyler’s milestone with a party at Johns Hopkins next week, but the big celebration is the one slated for May 2015, when, barring any setbacks, his cancer will have been in remission long enough for his doctors to pronounce him cured.

At that point, according to his father, Tyler is going to Disney World.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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