Breast cancer survivor Beth Harris helps others fight the disease
They call them “cancerversaries,” counting from the day you were diagnosed.
Counting from the day of that mammogram, that biopsy, that conversation with a doctor telling you, “You have breast cancer.”
And from that day forward, you’re a survivor.
Beth Harris has celebrated eight breast cancerversaries.
And celebrate is definitely the word. She celebrates every day as a chance to live.
“People will say I’m very ‘extra.’ I find a reason to have a party for anything,” said Harris, a 42-year-old Air Force veteran who made it through eight rounds of chemo, 35 radiation treatments and seven surgeries. “I don’t want to miss an opportunity to celebrate something that could be the last time for that reason to celebrate.”
Sept. 18, 2008, is the day Harris became a survivor. Her fiancé had noticed a hard lump on the side of her breast while giving her a back massage, and a mammogram and ultrasound confirmed the stage 3C diagnosis.
“After being told you have cancer, it’s like you have a second lease on life,” Harris said. “It’s like I have a chance to relive. I don’t care what stage of cancer you’re told that you have, you can still live for today.”
I don’t care what stage of cancer you’re told that you have, you can still live for today.
Beth Harris, eight-year breast cancer survivor
Harris became one of the roughly 2.8 million women living in the United States who have a personal history with breast cancer, and she became part of a new sisterhood that changed her life.
Thousands of pink-clad survivors and supporters represented that community at Saturday’s Palmetto Health Foundation Walk for Life. It was a show of unity and of strength among the many who are bound by a common story.
“Cancer, yes, it was a bad thing,” said Wendy Williams, a three-year breast cancer survivor. “But it’s also been one of the biggest blessings because of the women I’ve met and how my life has changed just by meeting these women. ... We’ll be bonded for the rest of our lives.”
Williams, 43, met Harris after going through treatment – four rounds of chemotherapy and 36 radiation treatments – for stage 2 breast cancer. They’re both a part of the Young Survival Coalition chapter that Harris helped found in the Columbia area about a year after her own diagnosis.
“More than a support group,” Williams said, the local chapter of the Young Survival Coalition is “a sisterhood.” They laugh and cry together, compare scars, swap stories of cancer and life and encourage one another through unique anxieties like “survivors’ guilt.”
“Because you see so many people in worse situations than you, and it’s like, ‘Why was I the lucky one?’” Williams said. “We have to talk each other down from that. We deserve to survive.”
We deserve to survive.
Wendy Williams, three-year breast cancer survivor
Harris is one of the first to remind her of that, Williams said, and often is the first person Williams calls when she’s having a difficult day.
Harris also is one of the first to reach out to many newly diagnosed breast cancer patients in the Columbia area, particularly young women.
Dozens upon dozens of contacts in Harris’ phone are marked with “BCS”: breast cancer survivor. On any given day, she might call or text one of them to say they’re on her mind and ask how they are doing.
Many newly diagnosed patients, particularly young women, are referred to Harris by a Palmetto Health nurse navigator.
Registered nurses who are dedicated to patient advocacy, navigators connect with patients immediately after their diagnosis and help them by providing a sounding board for questions and worries and an arm of support through their months of treatment.
Harris’ nurse navigators were among the first tools in her support belt, and now it is to Harris that nurse navigators turn to encourage others who are beginning to walk the same path she has.
I don’t want to miss an opportunity to celebrate something that could be the last time for that reason to celebrate.
“Beth’s courage, her positive attitude and her sensitivity” make it easy for her to connect with fellow young survivors, said Tiffany Winslow, a nurse navigator.
Harris’ purpose as a survivor, she has found, is to “pay it forward.” She does that by living and sharing her will to live.
“It’s easy to not be grateful for every day,” she said. But on her worst days, “I know somebody is hurting a little bit worse than me. ... I think to myself, ‘How dare I feel this bad today? I can still get up. I can still live. I can still move. I will keep going.’”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
Walk for Life and Famously Hot Pink Half Marathon, 10K and 5K
More than 7,000 walkers and runners participated in Saturday’s 26th Walk for Life at Spirit Communications Park in Columbia. The event is one of the Midlands’ largest charitable walks each year.
The event raised more than $613,000 for Palmetto Health Breast Center. The money will go toward the purchase of a 3D digital mammography unit at Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital.
The winner of the half-marathon was presented with a custom medal studded with diamonds and pink topaz stones worth more than $6,500.