Breast cancer can strike any woman, of any age, as Angela Lee Harris found through her diagnosis of not one, but two types of cancer.
By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times
In May of this year, Angela Lee Harris, a pretty, 29-year-old financial manager, graduated from California State University Channel Islands and celebrated her engagement to her boyfriend, Malibu resident Tim Thie. In June she saw a doctor for endometriosis treatment and mentioned that she had a “burning sensation” in her right breast. By July, a mammogram and needle biopsy confirmed that she had Stage IV breast cancer that had spread to her spine, pelvis and lymph nodes.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Harris said she wanted to go public about her case so that other women might avoid her experience.
“It hit us like a ton of bricks,” Harris said. “People my age are planning babies and buying houses. I’m trying to survive.”
Harris is surviving with the support of Thie, who is now her husband (they got married in a helicopter flying over Las Vegas on July 23, shortly following her diagnosis and before intense medical treatment began). Her breast cancer was initially diagnosed as estrogen receptor positive (HER2), a particularly aggressive form of cancer, before it was discovered that she actually had two types of breast cancer.
“I am in a class of only 0.5 percent of cancer patients,” Harris said. “When it was discovered that I have two types of cancer, they dropped me from a clinical study for women who develop HER2 unusually young.”
Harris is athletic and has always eaten properly. There is no cancer in her family. When she was interviewed in late August, Harris was the picture of health-slim, fit, clear eyed and with shiny brown hair cut in a graceful bob-despite having already undergone radiation and chemotherapy. By mid-September, all her hair was gone.
Harris is being treated at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. She will continue to receive chemotherapy “until the tumors stop shrinking.” She is remarkably calm and forward thinking about her situation, stating matter-of-factly, “They don’t know what my life expectancy is.”
Even with employer health insurance benefits, the young couple’s debt is beginning to accumulate (both still carry student loans). Harris decided to become an activist for breast cancer awareness for young women. She established a foundation to initially help with her overwhelming hospital expenses, and in 2011 Harris will start donating all the funds from the foundation toward research and supporting young women living with cancer.
Malibu Global Awareness, the local nonprofit that has raised thousands of dollars for Doctors Without Borders, is sponsoring a fundraiser to launch Harris’ foundation next month, with its first annual “Dream On” sunset cruise in Marina del Rey.
Harris, who participated in a fundraising triathlon for breast cancer awareness in San Diego last year, said of her situation: “It shows you that cancer doesn’t discriminate against age or lifestyle. You have to take responsibility for checking yourself. Feel your boobies!”
That proactive mantra is one that Malibu resident JoAnn Fletcher, an athlete, Pilates instructor and cancer survivor, has been pushing for the past five years, with her Pilates for Pink annual fundraiser. During the month of October, Fletcher, who teaches at Malibu Gym, will donate all proceeds from Pilates classes and a “Gold for Pink” silent auction to the National Breast Cancer Research Foundation. In four years, she has raised nearly $50,000 for the program.
The silent auction, which will take place Oct. 4, alone, has profitable potential. Items being offered include jewelry designs by Irit Ehrlich, Botox treatments, dinner for two at Sage and other luxury items. All proceeds go to breast cancer research.
“During this difficult economy, I’m hoping to raise at least the same amount as last year,” Fletcher said. “Cancer cells don’t know the difference [between good times and bad]. They just keep multiplying.”
Fletcher’s own story has attracted a number of breast cancer survivors to her Pilates classes, all who swear that recovery would never have been the same without the training.
Mori Rubin is one of those women. She had a negative mammogram in February last year, but said her breast just “didn’t feel right.” Knowing that her sister had been diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 2008, Rubin insisted upon an MRI. The results came back positive.
“My sister was misdiagnosed after a mammogram, and her treatment is aggressive,” Rubin, an attorney for the local chapter of the National Labor Relations Board, said. “Since then, there have been eight women within three generations of my family diagnosed with breast cancer-two of them young women. It is very important to know your family history. And if you don’t feel right about something, push your doctors and insurance companies to test further.”
“Pilates for Pink has really brought Malibu breast cancer survivors and patients together,” Rubin said. “It helps to see how many of us have been affected. Some of JoAnn’s girls would come over and show me what their reconstructive surgery looked like so I’d know what to expect. Having a support team is indispensable to beating this thing.”
More information about the fundraiser benefiting Angela Harris can be found online at www.angelaleeharrisfoundation.com.
More information on the Pilates for Pink donation drive can be obtained by contacting the Malibu Gym at 310.457.2450 or online at www.malibugym.com.
During the month of October, the American Book Drive will collect used books, CDs and DVDs to be sold online. Proceeds will be donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure(r). Bin locations can be found by contacting Gianfranco Lisi at 805.306.1772, ext. 27.