By Hannah Kaufman
Kameron Thomas reached for the next purple grip, his hand calloused and caked in the white powder that has now stained most of his good pants.
“Belay is on.”
Easily maneuvering his feet to the left, he stood and pulled the rest of his body up. Climbing a 5.11, which is a harder rock-climbing route, Thomas hurdled the overhang with ease. He wiped his dirty blonde hair out of his face with a grin and looked down at the other climbing staff confidently.
Thomas is a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill and a second-year climbing staffer at the campus’ rock walls. Lean and muscular, he’s happiest when using his hands. He sews sweaters for his girlfriend, he sculpts ceramics in art class and sometimes, he even flies planes, having earned his pilot’s license at age 17.
And last year, Thomas was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
A growing solution
The headaches began junior year of high school. Thomas went to 10 different doctors, each one telling him he was crazy in the same way a cheating spouse reassures a panicked partner: repeatedly, nonchalantly and with confidence.
Then, one doctor noticed something unusual after looking closely at his eyes: a malignant tumor on his pituitary gland.
The tumor is the source of Thomas’ headaches, as well as heightened hormone levels that affect his mood and cause kidney stones. But for now, it’s too small to be taken out immediately.
So, Thomas is waiting for it to grow.
He goes through scans every six months, but as the tumor grows larger, the time between Thomas’ appointments will get shorter.
The day he found out about his tumor, Thomas felt glad. At least then he could define the problem, as his strategic, rock-climbing mind prefers clear-cut problems and solutions.
“I thought it was a little funny,” he admitted. “I went through all this s— in my life, I keep on trudging through s—, and then ‘Oh, maybe I’ll get a break.’ Nah, you have a brain tumor now.”
Although frustrated with the hormonal impacts of the tumor, Thomas is not worried about its presence. His biggest fear is that it’s pushing against his eyes, which could cause him to lose his eyesight — and then his ability to fly.
His first experience on a plane was at 5 years old. Thomas was on a flight from Colorado to North Carolina by himself, so the staff let him walk around, racing through the aisles and meeting bemused passengers. Eventually, the pilots told him he could sit in the cockpit while they flew the plane.
Thomas watched, his eyes wide as he took in the stretching sky and array of flashing knobs and buttons. Perched in the pilot’s seat like an anxious baby bird, he fell in love with the feeling of freedom that being in the cockpit gave him.
It was a relief that he had yet find anywhere else, including his home.
The path to a ‘sense of self’
Thomas’ parents were never married. His father lived in North Carolina and was often in and out of jail for drugs or violence, so Thomas and his brother lived with their mother in Colorado. He has seven other siblings, but he has never met most of them.
Growing up, his mother was always drunk and regularly did meth, heroin and crack. They moved around a lot, causing Thomas to miss kindergarten. By the time he was six, his mother had been reported to social services multiple times as teachers noticed bruises on his face, and after slamming her high heel into his brother’s head, the two boys were put into foster care.
In each of the six foster homes the two lived in, they were subjected to varying degrees of neglect. When a foster family was especially bad, Thomas’ brother would run away, and they’d be sent somewhere new.
At 9 years old, Thomas was adopted by his father’s parents and went to live with them in Leasburg, North Carolina. His grandparents owned a logging company and had the means to support almost any hobby Thomas was interested in, such as glassblowing, metalworking, wood chopping and furniture building.
But soon, real friends trickled in through his sturdy walls. He attended a local high school for two years before transferring to boarding school at the highly competitive North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
Although it took a while for most students to get to know him in high school, people were drawn to his strong sense of self, his friend Lauren Subramanium said.
“It was funny because when I saw him around campus, he always wore these cowboy boots,” Subramanium said. “I thought of him as ‘cowboy boots guy.’”
Something as cool as luck
Now, Thomas has a couple of close friends, but prefers to operate alone. Strangers find him reserved, while friends find comfort in his kind blue eyes and easy laugh. Yet, most of them couldn’t tell you more than a few basic things about him.
He’s traded his cowboy boots for a pair of Blundstones. He wears brown wide-legged pants, a cropped sleeveless shirt and has chipped matte green polish on his fingernails (he plans to repaint them soon). Thomas works at the climbing wall a few times a week, studies art and computer science and regularly bakes cookies with his girlfriend.
The raging headaches haven’t stopped. He still doesn’t tell friends about his tumor or his childhood because, honestly, people never know how to react to that sort of thing. And he finds himself wishing he had reached out to his mother before she committed suicide last year.
He still doesn’t know if she had a funeral.
Sometimes when the hubbub of school and distractions goes away, he feels sad and angry. Thomas doesn’t feel unlucky — he wishes it was something as cool as luck. He thinks that bad things just happen.
“I don’t think my life is very interesting,” Thomas said.
“Sure, I don’t have parents, but other people don’t have parents, too,” he said. “I have cancer, but other people have cancer, too. So what? I think the only interesting thing is that I know how to do things.”
Thomas sets his jaw and looks up at the asymmetric pattern of blue grips above him. He’s attempting a 5.12 at the rock wall.
Smiling once he’s found the perfect route to take, Thomas puts his hand on the wall, like he’s done a million times.
Edited by Kaitlyn Schmidt and Clay Morris