A 9/11 First Responder and Former Detective Survives Cancer and Heart Failure

Frank Thomas, 57, is the definition of “New York Strong.” For 23 years, he was a New York City Police detective. He even worked 12-hour shifts doing recovery at Ground Zero after 9/11. 

"It was a horrible day, and I saw things that day that I would never want anyone to see.  I saw firsthand the greatness and kindness of people. I also saw how evil can destroy, but then as a country, how remarkable we are. 9/11 is a very sad day for my family,” Frank says. 

Eleven years ago, Frank was diagnosed with a rare soft tissue cancer, angiosarcoma, with a small likelihood of survival. This cancer led to a massive tumor, and his lung collapsed before treatment began. “I thought I was going to not see my kids grow up, and my biggest fear was that they wouldn’t remember me,” he told Fox News Digital in an article about his journey. 

Surgery to remove the tumor was performed by Dong-Seok Lee, MD, Assistant Professor of Thoracic Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in a procedure that also resolved the collapsed lung. This was followed by months of radiation therapy, led by Kenneth Rosenzweig, MD, Professor and Chair of Radiology at Icahn Mount Sinai. After these treatments and four rounds of chemotherapy at The Mount Sinai Hospital, Frank was in remission. 

He believed he was in the clear, and then COVID-19 hit. Frank was exhausted, had trouble walking, and felt that his body was retaining fluid. He thought he might have COVID-19 but was reluctant to go to the doctor. His wife, Joan, searched for the right doctor for Frank and found a heart failure specialist at The Mount Sinai Hospital. “With the cancer, it was scary because the kids were little, and it was a very rare type of cancer,” she says. “Ten years later, we were dealing with the heart and back to Mount Sinai. We listened to the amazing team of doctors, and he did what he needed to do.”

Frank initially saw Herschel Sklaroff, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine (Cardiology) at Icahn School Mount Sinai, who gave him immediate, useful guidance on medication, lifestyle changes, and maintaining a positive frame of mind. Dr. Sklaroff connected Frank with Anuradha Lala, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine (Cardiology), at Icahn Mount Sinai, who diagnosed him with heart failure in 2021.

“Frank is where he is today because of her amazing care and the work on the entire team at Mount Sinai,” Joan says.

Dr. Lala says Frank’s heart condition was taking a toll on his entire body. “His heart muscle function was weak. One number that quantifies muscle function was at a level of less than 15 percent—when over 50 percent is considered ‘preserved’ or normal,” she says.

Frank underwent two stenting procedures to help relieve artery blockages. He also followed the guidance of Dr. Lala, who focuses on “heart function” to empower patients as they work toward improving their health with lifestyle changes and the latest therapies. Before the procedure, Frank was sleeping only four to five hours a night, eating unhealthy foods, and not exercising. But after his procedure, Frank made sure to follow a low-sodium diet, take his medication, and exercise. 

He is now down 100 pounds, and his heart failure is in remission. His cancer is in remission, too, with scans showing he has been cancer free for 10 years.

“To be a witness and be a part of Mr. Thomas’ heart function recovery was an amazing experience. His story is a true testament to the importance of partnership and open communication between the health care provider and the patient,” says Kimberly Ashley, FNP-BC, who worked with Frank throughout his recovery. 

Frank was able to participate in a 9/11 relay at the U.S Naval Academy with his son Francis. “It was a very proud moment for me. In front of Bancroft Hall, World Trade Center first responders stood up there on the stairs. I was there when my son ran the flag in, a moment I’ll never forget." 

Frank has advice for anyone facing health problems: “When you feel that there’s something wrong, go see the doctor early. Don’t wait. If you’re not feeling 100 percent, you’re not feeling that well, go see a doctor.”