Living with cancer: A survivor story
Kim Harris rests during the shooting of Bride and Doom, one month following completion of chemotherapy for breast cancer. Harris was diagnosed at the age of 39 with stage II ductal
May 07, 2014Editor's note: As Relay for Life of Valley Center approaches, we at the Valley Roadrunner thought it would be interesting to hear stories from those affected by cancer to give everyone in the community a better understanding of how cancer affects a patient and the families who love them. To start off the series, former editor and freelance writer Kim Harris has agreed to share her story with readers to kick-off the series on "Why we Relay." We continue to look for stories from everyone who has been affected by cancer and invite readers to share them with us by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for publication in a future issue.
I remember that August day like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful Southern Maryland summer day. I remember I had been working at my job at Comcast and enjoying the drive home with the windows down, the sunroof open, and the music cranked about as loud as the speakers in my new Ford Freestyle could handle without rattling the windows. I stopped at the mailbox, grabbed the mail, and drove down the driveway to my house. I flung the mail onto the counter and started dinner.
It wasn't until later that night that I finally got around to the mail and when I saw the letter from the imaging place where I had done my first mammogram, my heart sank. An abnormality was detected in my right breast. The recommendation was I follow up with my family doctor as soon as possible. And so began my battle with cancer.
Three weeks later I was diagnosed with stage II ductal carcinoma in situ, a non-invasive form of breast cancer. Due to my family history of the disease, I knew the fight would be a difficult one. Sadly, I wasn't wrong.
"Because of my battle with cancer I now know how strong I can be when faced with adversity and I can be a voice for those cancer patients who are no longer with us," said Harris, an eight year cancer survivor.
The treatment for my form of cancer was a lumpectomy followed by a grueling round of chemo. I also opted to do genetic testing due to the aforementioned family history. My paternal grandmother and all but one of my paternal aunts had passed from the disease.
I had my lumpectomy in October of that year and then on Nov. 23, the day before Thanksgiving, I underwent my first chemo treatment. The nurse told me that I could count on my hair beginning to fall out on the seventeenth day following my first treatment. Sure enough, on Dec. 10, my hair began to fall out in huge clumps. Luckily, my older sister was with me at the time so we took matters into our own hands, broke out the clippers, and beat cancer at its own game. Seeing myself bald for the first time was shocking, but after about two weeks of wearing a very uncomfortable wig, I decided that my appearance would open the door for me to talk about my battle with cancer. I stopped wearing it.
Each time I underwent a chemo treatment there was illness – days spent sick to my stomach with a complete inability to keep even water down. But I had kids, a husband, and a family, so I didn't let it stop me no matter how bad I felt. My doctors put me on steroids and instead of losing weight, I gained nearly 40 pounds. I had to go shopping for new clothes to fit my now bloated figure. Stretchy pants and t-shirts became my wardrobe of choice. That was a tough pill to swallow after wearing nothing but stylish business suits for the past 20 years of my life.
Kim Harris hams it up for the camera six months after completion of chemotherapy for breast cancer. Harris continued to work during her treatment until she developed a neutropenic fever due to a low white blood cell count. It would be six months before she could return to work.
In January, I received the news I had been dreading. My genetic results came back positive for the BRCA2 marker, a mutation in the BRCA2 gene that prevents the body from making tumor suppressor proteins. I was told my chance for a recurrence was over 80 percent unless I did the unthinkable, a bilateral mastectomy.
Two weeks later while I was still weighing my options, I came down with a neutropenic fever, a low level of neutophils, a type of white blood cell that helps to fight off infection. I was hospitalized and in isolation for a week, receiving injections directly into my stomach to help boost the production of white blood cells. Visitors had to be fully gowned and wear face masks while in the room with me. My kids were only allowed to visit for an hour a day. After about 12 hours in the hospital, I made my decision. I knew I couldn't put myself or my family through this kind of difficulty ever again. I would move forward with the mastectomy.
I had my surgery on April 24, 2006. The pain was nearly unbearable, but I worked through, eventually becoming well enough to go home and try to regain some semblance of normalcy. An infection put reconstruction on hold, but after 14 months and nine surgeries things began to get back to normal. In Sept. of 2008, my husband asked for a divorce. In December of that year, I underwent another surgery to have my ovaries removed to prevent ovarian cancer, another common problem with BRCA2 patients. Then, just as things were getting back to normal, in March of 2009, I received more bad news: I had my first metastasis to the brain.
I had a brain resection to remove the tumor in a matter of days. I underwent stereotactic radio surgery, a form of radiation. My doctors told me best-case scenario was only one year to live. I dealt with it, made my bucket list, and began to plan for my kids to live without me there to guide them. I wrote letters to the three of them expressing my love and my hopes and dreams for their lives once I was gone. Life went on.
In Feb. of 2010, doctors found what appeared to be another suspicious lesion in my brain and I had another brain surgery, this time having a stroke while in recovery and completely losing any feeling or control of my left side. I underwent extensive inpatient therapy, followed by outpatient therapy to regain use of the left side of my body. But, one year later I was released from therapy and, once again, began to pick up the pieces of my life.
I have lost much to cancer, a marriage, complete use of the left side of my body, my memories of childhood, my girlish figure I was so proud of ,and a multitude of other things too numerous to list. Every six months when I see my oncologist, I am terrified that I will hear the words "you have cancer," but I am happy to say that since 2010, I have remained cancer free.
Because of my battle with cancer, I now know how strong I can be when faced with adversity and I can be a voice for those cancer patients who are no longer with us. I can tell you that early detection is key and that events such as Relay For Life raise funds for valuable programs and research to beat the dreaded disease and that every dollar donated can help to save a life or could possibly be the dollar that finds the cure.
Relay For Life of Valley Center will be held at Bates Nut Farm on June 21 beginning at 9 a.m. The 24-hour event will honor survivors, memorialize those who have lost their battle, and provide the opportunity to come together for a worthy cause. For more information, to donate or to register a team, visit RelayForLife.org and search for Valley Center or send an email to email@example.com.