Kristin Harris is living with metastatic breast cancer – and she also is a COVID19 survivor. In this special episode, she joins the podcast to share her story.
Pink ribbons have been a thread of Kristin Harris’s story for as long as she can remember. Her mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer when Kristin was four years old, and she would later serve as a caregiver at age 24 when her mother was diagnosed with terminal metastatic disease. Just a few years later, at 32, Kristin became the fourth generation in her family to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite undergoing aggressive treatment, she was diagnosed again in 2016, and she is currently living(!) with metastatic breast cancer.
Channeling a deep passion borne of personal experience, Kristin became Executive Director of Susan G. Komen Central Virginia in 2015 and Komen Central & Eastern Virginia (CEVA) in 2019. Today, she works tirelessly alongside her talented team, volunteers, community partners, and Komen CEVA family and friends to save lives from breast cancer in their community. By hosting signature events such as the MORE THAN PINK Walk®, Komen CEVA raises funds to provide screening, diagnostic, and treatment services for uninsured and underinsured patients in central and eastern Virginia and to invest in innovative, breakthrough research to prevent and cure breast cancer.
When asked where she finds her motivation and drive, Kristin shares, “I am dedicated to this work in memory of my beloved mother, in salute of the heroes like my dad and brother who walk by our sides, and in honor of my precious niece, in hope that she will one day know a world without breast cancer.”
Living with metastatic breast cancer is overwhelming. A lot of information to process, emotions to deal with and a constant balancing act between the reality of dealing with your disease and trying to stay present and live your best life. On top of that, you’re also at higher risk for complications associated with viruses and other illnesses due to having a weakened immune system here to share her story of recently fighting through a COVID19 diagnosis while living with and undergoing treatment for metastatic breast cancer is the executive director of Susan G Komen Central and Eastern Virginia. Kristin Harris. Kristin, welcome to the show.
Thank you Adam. I’m honored and grateful to be here.
Well, I’m really excited to talk to you. This is really timely. I understand that you have a long history of breast cancer in your family. So can you start by telling us a little bit more about your personal breast cancer journey?
Well, I tell you, Adam ingredients have really been the thread of my story for as long as I can remember. I remember being four years old when my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33. She was stage three. This was back in the very early eighties. Had a radical mastectomy at the time, pretty aggressive chemo. And it was somewhat unknown prognosis and you know, I was all at four years old and my brother was less than a year. I remember trailing after her at through her fight when she was interviewed just like this and on TV and sort of in my heart of hearts at a very young age, committing to myself that I wanted to take up this banner one day and fight for this cause I saw how she brought joy and courage, strength to others and I knew that I would probably do this one day too.
What I didn’t know is how or the rest of the why, but my mother was diagnosed again 20 years later when I was 24 with metastatic breast cancer. At that point, it was fairly advanced, very advanced sexually and terminal. And I moved home. I was in grad school at the time and I moved home to be her primary caregiver. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was 24 years old. Didn’t know anything about the or the process, but I learned quickly and worked with our hospice nurses very closely to give her the most wonderful last few months that we could. But it also changed my life because I had powerful conversations at that time about what is my purpose and really matters. How does someone prepare to lead this world? And what are the questions that you ask and things that you think about.
So I sort of encountered mortality from that angle at a very young age. But little did I know that just a few years later when I was 32, I was diagnosed myself with age three breast cancer that had already metastasized to my lymph nodes. And I too had a bilateral mastectomy. What ended up being 19 months of chemo and six weeks of radiation. So we really threw everything at it. But the kitchen sink ologists said at the time, you know, we took a very aggressive approach. It was what we in the breast cancer world called triple positives. So ERPR positive part two, positive breast cancer. I was also the fourth generation in my family to be diagnosed with cancer. But again, because I’m lucky to live in this generation and I have technology and medication care that didn’t exist for generations before me, so we went after it. But then I have to admit, I always surprised when just a few years later in 2016 I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, meaning breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast region to other parts of your body. In this case, the bones, my bones and is technically stage four, but that was 2016 I’ve been in treatment ever since. And now I’m closing in on four years of living and I underscore that we’re living with metastatic breast cancer.
So to build off of that, you’re, you’re living with metastatic breast cancer in the past few weeks. You’ve also been battling through coven 19 as well. What is that experience been like for you?
Yes, but again, I’m grateful. I’m so grateful to be here because in spite of having metastatic breast cancer and being currently in treatment, I had a relatively mild Cove, 19 case. So I want to underscore that because I know there are others and maybe even some families or individuals watching right now who have cases that were worse than mine. I don’t take it for granted and I don’t take it lightly that somehow I just got lucky and I was able to be treated at home and didn’t even have to be admitted to the hospital. With my coven 19 case, I was monitored closely by my oncology team through virtual appointments like this through telehealth and I was able to stay out of the hospital and recover at home, but it’s been about four weeks now since I first presented with symptoms. And to be honest, Adam, the first 10 days were no joke.
It was, it was rest. This is this. Iris is no joke and we all know that it’s claiming lives and it’s unpredictable and almost unfathomable time in the life of our country and so many individuals. And it’s interesting for me because I, oddly enough in my conversations around my, my Cova diagnosis and in watching groups around me, my coworkers and even family members, I started seeing some parallels between the coven 19 experience that we’re all sharing together and what it’s like in the day to day to live with a chronic disease to live with as cancer. And it was because I expressed that in one of our team meetings, you know, at Komen that I ended up being invited to sit down and talk with you. And let’s talk more about that. What are some of the similarities that you saw there? So what I shared with my colleagues was when you’re first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, it’s much like what I was seeing in folks around me as we were living through the early weeks of coven 19 together.
And there’s uncertainty. The anxiety you had known, struggling with the randomness, knowing that some will survive and some won’t. And to a certain degree you don’t know why. Some have an easier case than others entirely. We know that some are predisposed with comorbidities, advanced age, you know, some of these things that both metastatic breast cancer and coven 19 having common and raising some of your risk factors and prognosis, but there’s still a randomness to it that you know, creates that anxiety. So I was watching my peers struggle with this fear and anxiety and I knew something about what it’s like to live with that and the day to day. But then when I also realized on the heels of that is because of my experience with MBC metastatic breast cancer, I got a toolbox, a toolbox of ways to cope with this that I can share right now.
So that’s what I started doing. You know, I said, you know, here’s what I’ve learned after, you know, almost four years of living with NBC, it’s that initially the fear is brains. That NBC diagnosis right here, you know, right to the forefront of your mind and your family members and it makes you race to figure out a care plan. And sometimes the symptoms are so imminent that you have to address them immediately. Doing that is number one, the physical center. But over time as you do everything from figure out your, you know, your medical care plan, figure out that cadence, what is that going to look like? Then you figure out your finances, you know, how, how am I going to figure this out financially? What are the changes that I need to make or have been made for me? And then you know, you do things, you take care of things like you know, a will or a living will and you know, some of these really pragmatic things that are hard to think about and make you feel suddenly like you’re living as if you’re dying.
But you only see like, you know when you have a stage four diagnosis, you kind of have to yeah. And then you settle into a new normal and you wait and you wait to see what happens next. How long is this going to last? Is my situation going to get worse or better? Am I going to be one of the lucky ones that gets to live with this for five, 10 20 years and beyond? And like I said, I had him. There’s a randomness to that. You don’t know. And while I say that, that’s when you realize you’re living in treatment always. And it’s product being in treatment all the time is ever comfortable, but it becomes familiar to shared with my coworkers that I got to a point where I realized, all right, this is my new normal and I can either keep living expecting to die or I can live to live that.
I might be one of those that gets to live today, tomorrow, five years and 10 years and beyond. And I want to be sensitive to my other friends who are metastatic and recognize upfront. But that is not always the case. And I, it breaks my heart to know that it isn’t, and we fight every day at home and to change that reality, to stretch that to be much longer at today. As someone who has been one of the lucky ones, I guess I’m here to share a little bit about what some of that psychosocial journey is like, but the emotional part has been like for me and how others around me have taught me to turn that into transformational growth.
Wow. Christina, I love that. I mean, so, so a couple of things come to mind. Number one, I’ve, I’ve interviewed many, many metastatic breast cancer individuals and it never occurred to me that what we are feeling as a collective community as a people, as a world is very similar and what all of you have felt for so long that uncertainty. And so I’m actually, I find myself as you’re talking to find myself actually very thankful for this opportunity to be able to better empathize with what you’re going through. So I really appreciate that insight. And then, and then also if I can just maybe sum up for just a moment. I think what I’m hearing you say is that when you don’t, when the future becomes less certain in any capacity with it’s covert 19 or metastatic breast cancer in the future becomes less certain. What you have is this moment and you can choose, are you going to live in fear or are you going to live to live? I think that’s what you said, right?
It’s true and that’s, I was so grateful for what you just shared, Adam, and that it did create an extra awareness of empathy for you because that is the whole reason I wanted to talk today to you in the world to share from my own journey because I’ve often wished that I could have figured out a few of the things that I’ve learned in the past two years without having to have metastatic breast cancer, you know, without a, you know, a stage four cancer diagnosis, you know, can I talk to my earlier self and if I did, what would I say? And that’s when I realized that’s my gift at this point to the world. Sometimes folks hunted this world with a natural ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes. They are the impacts around us. There’s some of the nurses and the caregivers and those that are caring for so many right now and just come to this world and somehow feel and experience and relate to others journeys.
Some of us who do understand it better once we’ve walked more places. I want to channel draw from my experience of having been the daughter of a survivor. I’m a caregiver terminal metastatic breast cancer survivor and young survivor with breast cancer going through this journey and now someone on 40 lean are living at our ability as a young age with metastatic breast cancer. All of that together in this time of coven and sort of weave together some of these lessons and help us not waste, not waste this moment in the journey and realize that sometimes in life, whether it’s a cancer diagnosis or anything, suffering and hard things are going to happen in this life, whether it’s now or later. That’s just the truth of it. How do we take these moments of suffering, validate, you know, give credence to the moment and say, you know, these emotions we’re all experiencing are really interesting, wrought with fear and anxiety.
Some of these are protective emotion, right? And I’m not a psych psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor, any that. I’m a layperson. I’m just Christian today. I just your friend Kristin on this walk with you in my, in my journey, I feel like there’s value in validating those emotions and that experience in the present because it can be so overwhelming. But then find our power in it is recognizing that you have sometimes bad things happen to us. Sometimes we bring them on yourself. So that’s just life happens, you know, and it gets back, right? Where’s our power and our power is in our choice. Not to waste the suffering, but instead to turn it into growth and ask ourselves, what have I learned from this? And beyond that, what can I do with it? How can I make the world a better place? How do I give to world? And then how do I bring it others together? How do we change the world? How do we change the future for ourselves and for the next generation because of what we’ve experienced?
Wow. Kristin, I mean that’s just so profound, so fantastic that the one thing that I heard you say that just resonated with me, I took a note right here is our power is in our choice not to waste our suffering. That’s just utterly profound. I can’t thank you enough for sharing that.
I call it my post-cancer existential Headspace. Like I jokingly call that like, you know when you live with metastatic breast cancer, it never goes away. There’s going to be an end to COBIT 19 there’s going to be an end to the point where this diverge is there won’t be an end to the suffering and loss that some people have experienced in covert 19 and there will be an end to treatment and suffering and loss that some people have experienced with cancer. You carry that loss always and the next phase will be the next phase of grief. Whether he’s lost someone to either the circumstances. Right now, or you’re one of the lucky ones that gets to recover right now, or one of the lucky ones who’s never had it. Let can we all learn together as we Wade through. And it’s that it takes time.
You know, time is one of our unrenewable resources. It’s precious. It’s precious that those of us who are facing, you know, a stage four metastatic disease and we get more time, but it’s also the gift in the day to day today. We have time, we have time. What are we going to do with that? Darn it. You know you know, as I’ve been living through the metastatic journey and the day to day, I found solace in my little cooking and my little home office. I found solace in my backyard. I love flowers, I love, I love horticultural therapy. I love my garden. And this is someone who prior to NBC I will tell you could not grow a darn thing. Turns out what I learned in all of that is you have to try. Part of my therapy ended up being my garden and I would go out there and do something about for me, nurturing life, nourishing, something that I could watch grow and bloom and flower and brought us color and life and joy to the world and my world.
My backyard garden became my sanctuary. It was an activity that I could do, but more than that, it became the place where I embraced prayer and meditation. My quiet time, I think time. Yeah. There’s themes of, you know, what is my purpose in this life, in this life right now? Authenticity. What is my truth? Ease like legacy, like do I, what am I leave to this world? How do we leave my Mark on this world? I came these really profound beings that I, I found myself thinking about and wanting to think about and conversation with my other friends who are going through cancer at any stage and especially in my metastatic buddies. He’s were recurring themes for all of it. How do we tell our truth? Having, how do we be our truth? Be authentic every day and have authentic conversations. Take the mask off and be real. And that’s what today is about today is just Kristin. No other hat. This is just Kristin, but you know what, whether you have NBC or you’ve been through this journey, honestly, Adam, all of us today at home, you know, while we are staying at home to take care of others with metastatic breast cancer, others with preexisting conditions, folks who were older than us who are at higher risk while we’re taking care of each other. How can we brand ourselves? You know, what your purpose in this world and what our dreams. Yeah.
Yeah. These are great questions. I love them. And, and, and what I love also is that we’re at a unique moment in time where we can slow down enough to ask these questions. And I think there’s a lot, a lot of value in that. So I’m wasting, yeah, that’s the theme. That’s the theme of your talk. Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your opportunity. Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste your suffering. Don’t waste it. I love that.
Don’t waste a minute. I have to have to give credit to a modern-day. Sage. I love me some tipping doing a game, you know, I mean they are watching it as a fixer ever is my guilty pleasure. Right.
And it has to give a shout out because they, you know, one day I was in the garden and just reading through my emails and this was like a year or so ago, a year and a half ago, I got an email because I had subscribed to their mailing list and it was about this thing they were doing how to chip starter. Essentially you could apply for small grants to try to start, you know, it’s, and I, I to have a spirit of entrepreneurship, so jump-start to chip, start something that you’re really passionate about. If someone gives me just a little bit of funding, a little, you know, a little bit of a chance, a little bit of money, a little bit of time, what would I do? Isn’t that what this opportunity is for all of us? But seriously, what would I do? How do I live boldly, fearlessly? How do I make the most of today and every day?
Yeah, I love that.
Learn from our experiences to make our lives better, our world better.
I love that. Well, Kristin, this has been amazing. You are a Ray of sunshine in my office with no windows, so I really appreciate that today. It’s been just a pleasure to talk to you. We will. We will absolutely have to do this again.
Likewise, I’m grateful and every way to be here. Thank you for having me.
Thanks to Genentech for supporting Real Pink. To find out more about Genentech’s latest research advancements, visit gene.com. Intro and outro music is City Sunshine by Kevin MacLeod. Ad music is Blue Skies by Silent Partner.