Your dollar counts. Did you know most research foundations invest only a small percentage into actual research? 90% of WCRF donations go directly to research.

Your dollar counts. Did you know most research foundations invest only a small percentage into actual research? 90% of WCRF donations go directly to research.


               Heads turned when Lynn Thomas strode into the Ritz restaurant in Newport Beach to grab a bar stool alongside a friend.

Statuesque and with shoulder-length blond hair, she favored boots and long skirts and bestowed a radiant smile on the wait staff as well as her companion.

In between sips of chardonnay or champagne, Thomas often slipped friend Sandy Sewell poems penned in a distinctive vertical script. Beneath her physical beauty and polished confidence, Thomas’ poetry portrayed an interior struggle to craft her own story in brushstrokes absent any shadings of despair or regret. By turns reflective and flinty, spiritual and optimistic, its free-verse style reveals an indomitable will to wrest joy and a fully realized existence from a physically altered state.

“How can she be so sick and look so gorgeous?” wondered Sewell, who, too, had confronted their common enemy: cancer.

Far from defeat her, Thomas underwent a transformation due to her illness that proved an inspiration to others and yielded a gift to better the survival odds among women who grapple with a similar diagnosis.

At 32, Thomas underwent a still rarely used radical surgery first performed in 1948 as a last-ditch try to halt aggressive cervical cancer. It’s an illness that, if allowed to progress, becomes either lethal or capable of altering the life goals, dreams, and day-to-day life of its victims in ways difficult for most people to imagine.

Her surgeon, Dr. John P. Micha, who trained at Cornell and at Memorial Sloan Kettering where Dr. Alexander Brunschwig pioneered the procedure, “had to remove half of everything she owned,” Sewell said.

The new journey thrust upon Thomas began because of a medical error, where a routine gynecologic screening was misinterpreted as normal by an irreputable laboratory. Her disease progressed silently and quickly, the cancer extending beyond her pelvis.

The next three years would include radiation and chemotherapy and surgical heroics so extensive that one of many of her hospital stays stretched beyond 100 days. She would often teeter at death’s door due to complications from the treatment followed by miraculous recoveries time and time again.

“At least five times we knew that Lynn wasn’t coming home. Each time she beat it,” said friend Mark Schley, calling Thomas “our miracle girl.”

The disfiguring surgery in 1988 that saved Thomas’ life required that she permanently capture her own body wastes in bags glued to her skin.

“I’ve never seen anyone cope with something so intrusive and do it with such grace,” said Dr. Paul Currie, an anesthesiologist who became a close friend.

In her second 30 years, Thomas strove to pursue normalcy despite ominous uncertainty and physical constraints. Along the way, though her marriage in her late 20s did not last, Thomas courageously struck up new romances, joined in social occasions among friends, developed expertise to trouble shoot complications of her own condition, and focused her attention and commitment on improving gynecologic cancer survival.

“If I could take a thimble of her character, I could solve many of the world’s problems,” said friend and attorney, Hall Seeley, who mentions Thomas’ example to disgruntled clients that hold grudges against physicians unable to provide a magic health bullet.

“She looked beyond that. She put aside her ills and discomfort to give us a happy time,” Seeley said.

Such fortitude arose from her family history. Her father, Korean war veteran Lane Costle, twice ascended the management ranks in aerospace to eventually lead a staff of 5,000 building Northrop’s stealth bomber. He rebooted his career following a 10-year bout of alcoholism and joblessness.

“She got her toughness from him,” said Thomas’ beau, George Brayton. “He’s a natural leader, just like her.” The two met in 1998 at a watering hole where Thomas shot pool with friends and Brayton stopped for a beer on a bike ride across the Balboa Peninsula, where Thomas lived.

Lynn Costle grew up in Westminster. Her parents had divorced by the time she was 19, when she relocated to Boston with her mother, Joan. With less than a year of junior college credits, she nonetheless spent four years holding jobs in banking and finance. High-level business opportunities opened for her in Southern California when she returned and eventually met Evan Brayn Thomas, a Newport Beach optometrist, who she married.

Cancer upended that idyllic life. Even so, Thomas would twist the threads of her life’s experience to fashion a new one.

“She really taught me the gift that life is more precious than you would believe,” said friend Jacquelyn Dillman, who, like Sewell, initially met Thomas through her involvement with Hoag Memorial Hospital’s Circle 1000, an organization dedicated to advancing cancer cures. “She led the best life she could possibly lead.”

Together, they shared a love for animals, food and literature, and would debate philosophy and plot twists into the night. Though Thomas could not tolerate airline travel, she devotedly suggested entrees at dining spots on her friend’s itinerary. “She ate vicariously even when she couldn’t eat,” Dillman said.

And Thomas would go on to become an inquisitive leader on the board of the Woman’s Cancer Research Foundation, whose researchers undertake trials to improve the cure rate of women with gynecological cancer.

“She wanted to give back and be part of giving back to the medical community; she was grateful they had saved her life,” Brayton said.

Forged by her experiences with prolonged hospitalizations and an aptitude for figures, Thomas proved a first-rate resource as a foundation board member. She pressed to keep overhead low to woo donors that expect 90 percent of their dollars to be spent on research. She pushed for the annual gala to forego the typical fundraising auction and instead showcase the doctors she considered rock stars, urging them to speak conversationally about the scientific ideas that excited her. And she knew the art of team building, borrowing from the better-known pink color branding associated with breast cancer. Gynecological cancer has its own color, turquoise. For a fundraising gala she organized, Thomas festooned the foundation’s men with ties and women with tote bags in the same blue-green.

“One thousand percent she believed in what we were doing,” said Dr. Micha, the foundation’s founding president.

Thomas had also transitioned into the parallel universe of gynecologic oncology, where patients’ lives intertwine with their dedicated lead surgeons, a partnership that is crucial to survive such an aggressive disease. The surgeons “are zealots, they bond with their patients,” said Currie, whose own mother died of ovarian cancer. “Women know their lives are dependent on them.”

Dr. Micha and later Dr. Lisa Abaid both served in this role as Thomas’ partners. “She was very fragile with so many medical problems. We tried very hard to keep her out of the hospital,” Dr. Micha said.

Yet, before medical intervention could do no more for Thomas last November, she expressed her appreciation for their dedication with a substantial gift. She contributed her $2 million estate entirely to the Woman’s Cancer Research Foundation, which will serve to extend the lives of many women who depend on the skills and discoveries of gynecologic oncologists in Southern California.

The foundation’s annual fundraising event this May 5 will be dedicated to Thomas. Even so, its emphasis will remain on the latest scientific advances in cancer research. “This is what she would want us to be doing,” Dr. Micha said.

And in a coda to their friendship, Dillman will add another entry to a list compiled by Thomas and tucked inside her Bible titled “Not Forgotten.”

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