Breast cancer survivor says life is worth it
For American Cancer Society
Kathy Harris, 70, has been facing down cancer for 30 years. She’s survived breast cancer once and lung cancer three times.
“I’ve gone through all the emotions. I’ve sat and I’ve cried. I’ve hated,” said Harris. “But when you’re done crying you need to pick yourself up and you need to move forward. Every day I put my feet on the ground is a good day.”
Harris was not yet 40 years old, a mother of 4, when she found a lump in her breast. A mammogram showed calcification, but nothing that seemed to be of immediate concern. Her doctor said to come back for another mammogram in 6 months.
By then, the lump was bigger and had begun hurting. Harris’ doctor sent her to a breast surgeon who performed a biopsy in the operating room and diagnosed cancer. “I started crying hysterically,” said Harris. “My youngest child was only 7. I thought I was going to die.” She was so upset she left without her purse and her husband had to bring her back to the hospital to get it.
Later, in the doctor’s office, Harris was faced with the decision to have breast conserving surgery (also called lumpectomy) or mastectomy, which removes the entire breast. She decided to have a mastectomy. “It was the hardest thing for me to go through,” said Harris. “I spent 2 weeks in the hospital depressed and crying until my doctor said to me, ‘You can do 1 of 2 things. You can sit here and cry and moan or you can take back your life and be strong and positive.’ I took his advice and I became stronger. I became positive.”
Nineteen years later, mammogram results came back abnormal in Harris’ other breast. After repeated mammograms and more abnormal results, Harris had had enough of worrying. In 2003, she underwent a second mastectomy. This time she stayed in the hospital for only 1 night, and describes her recovery at home as difficult. But what she remembers best is the support she received from family and friends.
“I used to worry my husband wouldn’t want me anymore,” said Harris. “But he says that it’s just a body part, and what matters is that I’m here. He’s the best loving man.”
By the time Harris had her second mastectomy, she had already survived lung cancer twice. She’d been sent for an x-ray after a heart test in 1996 and doctors discovered a tumor in her left lung. She had surgery that removed half the lung and was given a nicotine patch to help her stop smoking. But Harris feared exposing herself to any more chemicals from tobacco. She quit cold turkey instead.
A year later during follow-up testing, Harris’ doctor found a spot on her right lung and removed part of that lung. She continued to go for checkups every 6 months for 15 years. After each test, she waited several days for the results.
“The waiting was horrible,” said Harris. “Each time I’d sit and cry and worry. I’d get really tensed up and irritable. My family knows and sticks by me. Then my doctor would call me and say, ‘Kathy, everything is OK. No worries. See you in 6 months.’”
But one day in 2011, Harris’ doctor told her the cancer had come back. She underwent several weeks of tests and an operation to find out that the tumor could not be removed through surgery. She would need treatments of daily radiation and very strong chemotherapy drugs.
Harris fought through the treatment despite some serious side effects. Her immune system was weakened and she felt sick and dizzy most of the time. She lost consciousness several times and had to be rushed to the emergency room and treated with blood transfusions and IV fluids. She developed a throat infection that made swallowing painful. In order to eat, she took liquid pain killers and drank shakes made from ice cream and nutritional supplements.
At first, Harris’ daughter drove her to and from Boston for treatment, but it soon became clear that Harris needed to be closer to the hospital. Her children did some research and found the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge program in Boston. A Hope Lodge community offers free, home-like accommodations for cancer patients and their caregivers whose best treatment options are away from home.
“I truly would not have survived without Hope Lodge,” said Harris. “As sick as I was, I could not take the long drive back and forth to the hospital.” Harris’ sister stayed with her. They had their own room and their own section of the refrigerator and freezer in one of the facility’s 4 kitchens. Her husband and children visited on weekends. “It was just wonderful,” she said. “Everybody was there for the same reason. I made a lot of friends and I lost a few friends.”
Relay For Life
Today Harris’ lung cancer is still there, but it isn’t growing. She still goes for checkups every 6 months to keep tabs on it. She feels good – she can walk 2 miles without getting out of breath. She’s crossed several items off her bucket list, including an ocean cruise and visits with some people she hadn’t seen in a long time. She has yet to get on the “Ellen” show.
She’s grateful for the support she received from family, friends, and neighbors while she was sick. They made meals for her and her husband, sent her cards and lottery scratch-off tickets through the mail, and held a fundraiser to help her with expenses like transportation, groceries, and a wig. Someone even remodeled her bathroom to make it easier for her to use. She says accepting help didn’t come naturally to her, but she learned.
“You have to let people in to help you,” said Harris. “I was the martyr and I learned that’s not the way to be. Let people into your heart and into your house and help you, no matter how stubborn you are. Everybody needs help at some point. Now I help other people even if they don’t ask.”
When she is feeling strong enough, Harris volunteers for the American Cancer Society Relay For Life event in her community. She’s served as team captain, walked the survivor lap when she was up to it, and once gave the “Fight Back” speech at the North Middlesex, Massachusetts event, an experience she describes as emotional.
Often, Harris says, newly diagnosed patients approach her at Relay For Life events to ask her for advice. She says she tells them it’s OK to cry, but then you have to pick up the pieces and move forward. “You need to fight for your life,” she says. “Your life is worth it.”