A relentless battle against the odds
In February 2013, medical professionals told Keisha Harris that she likely had only 2-6 weeks left to live. Stage 4 cervical cancer had spread to her kidney and spinal cord. And after undergoing countless surgeries to remove the cancer, radiation therapy turned her insides into what she described as “the equivalent of wet toilet paper.” She was bleeding internally in excess of one pint per day. Her family members began to ask her what songs she would want played at her funeral.
But Harris wasn’t going down without putting up the fight of a lifetime, and she was convinced that if there was a funeral, she certainly wasn’t going to be there.
Now, three years after a terminal diagnosis and an extremely rare procedure performed by professionals at VCU Massey Cancer Center, Harris looks bravely forward to a positive future and reflects back on the greatest challenge she has ever encountered.
Harris was originally diagnosed with cancer in March 2012 at the age of 35, shortly after she had moved to Hawaii with her then-fiancé.
The previous December she had been treated for a kidney infection, for which she was prescribed a handsome dose of antibiotics.
On Christmas Day, she swallowed a gulp of seawater while snorkeling, began throwing up sea bubbles and could barely walk for the next week, symptoms she attributed to a worsened kidney infection.
However, when she began to notice blood in her urine and finally woke up one morning incapable of urinating, she decided to visit the hospital.
Doctors removed a quarter-sized blood clot from her kidney and told her she had kidney stones.
From there, she was flown by helicopter to Honolulu to undergo emergency surgery to put stints into her kidney. But it turned out that what they thought was a kidney stone was actually a tumor.
Harris decided to receive an advanced cancer treatment called brachytherapy, which directs radiation through thin catheters straight into the tumor, in addition to eight rounds of chemotherapy and traditional radiation.
At this point, she was uninsured, had left her newfound job and was living in a hotel room that the American Cancer Society had accommodated for a discounted price.
In June 2012, Harris received her final treatment, and a clear CT scan demonstrated that she was cancer free.
She moved back to the Atlantic Coast to be closer to both her and her fiancé’s families, acquiring a job at a luxury hotel in Georgia that October.
But then Harris began feeling sick again and was informed at the hospital that she had experienced kidney failure. Subsequently, she received five surgeries in five days.
Her creatinine levels were 20 times higher than the maximum average amount. Creatinine is a chemical waste product that is generated by muscle metabolism and is filtered out of the body through the kidneys.
She and her fiancé both left their Georgia jobs and moved to Richmond where Harris’ family lived. It was at this time that Harris sought medical assistance from VCU Massey Cancer Center.
There it was determined that her original radiation treatment had severely deteriorated her kidneys and other vital organs to a point that she was passing approximately 500 milliliters of blood internally on a daily basis.
In February 2013, she was dealt the heavy news that it was likely that she wouldn’t survive another seven weeks.
Her gynecologic oncologist, Weldon Chafe, M.D., told her there was one procedure left that they could try. It was called total pelvic exenteration, but there was an extremely low success rate for patients in her condition. Harris’ organs were so depleted that her doctors feared there would be little with which to sew her back up.
A total pelvic exenteration includes the removal of gastrointestinal, urinary and reproductive organs as well as reconstruction of the internal passageways to accomplish the basic functions of the organs that were removed.
It’s also an extremely risky surgery because most bodies reject the new route.
“I was like, ‘We’ve got this option or death, so let’s do this.’ You could put a horn on my head as long as I’m going to be breathing tomorrow,” Harris laughs, looking back on her decision to go through with the procedure.
Harris also underwent a double ostomy operation, wherein a surgical opening in the skin is made as an alternative avenue for waste products to exit the body.
After a successful surgery, Harris left the hospital on a daily regimen of 78 pills – over half of which were painkillers.
Although she was told it would take two years to recover, she was back at the gym in six months. She started by setting incremental daily goals for herself. In the beginning, her goal was simply to get up and get dressed. Then it was to walk to the end of the block and back several times in a day.
Early in her recovery process she ate only raw fruits and vegetables. She still maintains a strict diet and over time diminished her pill intake down to zero.
Now, three years after receiving a terminal diagnosis, Harris is fully mobile and feels great. She’s also quick with a quip and a broad smile – an attitude she knows helped her to push on through the hardest challenge of her life.
When the chips were stacked against her, Harris realized that a critical factor in her survival would be to embrace a positive mind, meditate and accept any amount of support that was available.
Harris recalls a specific moment when she was receiving radiation and chemotherapy treatments in Hawaii. She was living in a hotel on a neighboring island adjacent to her house, and she used taxi vouchers to travel back and forth to her treatment center.
She would often receive the service of the same taxi driver, a man who opened the door for both Harris and her fiancé, listened to talk radio and seldom conversed with them.
Harris noticed that on some days the driver would take the highway to the cancer treatment center and other days he would travel by the back roads. She figured he was trying to earn extra money when taking the back roads because it was an extended route.
On the second-to-last day of her treatment, Harris asked the driver if he would take the longer, back-roads route because she liked that way better.
For the first time, the driver turned to her and spoke. “You know,” he said. “You look good today. And when you see me take the back-roads way, you look good. When you look sad, I bring you the fast way.”
Harris would later find out that not only did taxi drivers make a set amount of money for all voucher passengers regardless of the route, they also made less than if they were to pick up a pedestrian off the street without a voucher.
“That just broke me down,” Harris remembers. “For someone who has never even said a word to you; he was doing his regular, everyday job. But he actually cared about me?”
Relying on positive support from people who passed through her daily world and eradicating traces of negative energy helped her to survive a relentless battle against the odds.
“When you have that mentality of hope, of something to believe in, then you have something positive to manifest. If all you’re believing in is your illness, then that is what you’re manifesting,” Harris says.
She also says that she owes everything to VCU and is “grateful that they believed in me.”
Harris, whose medical expenses were covered by VCU’s Virginia Coordinated Care Program, now gives back by volunteering at Massey every Tuesday. She also visits the cancer center on Christmas Day to hand out gifts to patients. She remembers that her doctor allowed her to leave the hospital to be with her family during the holidays when she was first admitted, so she empathizes with people who are stuck there during that time.
Harris also is planning to facilitate a newly founded support group for ostomy patients at Massey’s Cancer Research and Resource Center of Southern Virginia in Lawrenceville, in addition to volunteering to help fit patients with wigs, breast prostheses and mastectomy bras.
She is now a motivational speaker and is the executive director for a non-profit group, Harris United, that offers support to cancer patients and their families.
She has also authored the first book in a four-part series detailing her fight with cancer. The book, ‘Warrior 917: Lessons Before Living’, is now available on Amazon.