While most people will relate 2020 with COVID-19, Kelly Harrell will remember it for an entirely different disease.
Harrell, 31, was diagnosed in March with breast cancer.
“During spring break a change in my right breast was really bothering me,” she said.
She didn’t think it was anything serious enough to see the doctor for, but her husband and mother insisted. So, she called her OB/GYN.
“She saw me the next day and that same day she wanted me to get a mammogram,” Harrell said.
She said she could tell by the small talk the technician made that something was wrong.
“I knew something was there when the ultrasound tech asked me if cancer runs in my family,” she said.
Three days later she had a biopsy and that confirmed two spots in her breast and a third in the lymph nodes under her arm. It was an invasive ductal carcinoma, a kind that can spread rapidly.
“It was scary at first,” she said.
On April 6 she had her first oncology appointment at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Treatment Center. By April 13 was beginning her first round of chemotherapy treatments – a 20-week process. She was given Adriamycin, also known as Red Devil medicine. It made her sick and her hair fell out.
Although the treatment was rough, it worked.
“They were very pleased that it was shrinking,” she said.
For her second round of chemo, Harrell was given Taxol. They had to stop it a short time later when she developed neuropathy in her feet.
“They moved my surgery up to Sept. 4. I had a double mastectomy,” she said.
On Oct. 12 Harrell underwent the knife again.
“They took some stomach fat and reconstructed my breasts … and I got a tummy tuck,” she said by phone while recovering in her room at MD Anderson.
There are several types of breast cancer and they affect women (and some men) differently.
Noah Hankins of San Felipe has battled it twice. She was first diagnosed in 2005 while she was working as a teacher’s aide at O’Bryant Intermediate School in Bellville. She had surgery and six months of chemo, all while continuing to work. She had the dreaded Red Devil medication and went bald.
“I never wore a wig. I didn’t feel comfortable wearing a wig,” she said.
Hankins was cancer free for 13 years.
“On Good Friday in 2018 I found a lump. I had cancer again, this time in the opposite breast,” she said.
This time she underwent six weeks of radiation treatment.
“Radiation was very tough on me,” she said.
She had surgery again. This time they removed the other breast, five lymph nodes, and the implant she had from her first bout with cancer.
“They took the implant out because it had an infection in it,” she said.
This time she opted not to have new implants or reconstructive surgery.
“I’m cancer free and I’m feeling good,” she said.
She isn’t the only one in her family to be a double cancer survivor. Her husband Terry had hairy cell leukemia in 1999 and in 2010 had prostate cancer. He said it was harder helping his wife go through her cancers than his own.
“It was a rough road, very trying at times,” he said.
Hankins had her treatment at Houston Methodist West Hospital in Katy. She praised her doctors and everyone who helped her through it.
“You just put your faith in the Lord and he helped us through it, made us stronger,” Terry Hankins said.
Noah Hankins said the toughest part for her was telling their four children about her cancer.
“It was hard to see my kids,” she said. “I’m supposed to be the strong one.”
Their children are adults now. The youngest was in college when Noah had her first bout with cancer.
One of the unfortunate side effects of her treatment was damage in her eye due to the chemo. Unknown to her at the time, she had an eye infection. As a result, she can only see half an image out of one eye.
The couple, who attend Trinity Lutheran Church, relied on their faith and the prayers and support of family and friends to get them through. Even her doctors prayed with her before surgery.
“God doesn’t give it to you, he’s just seeing how you’ll handle it and grow,” Noah Hankins said.
Faith also played a major role in Kelly Harrell’s recovery.
“My children were praying that mommy’s treatments would go well,” Harrell said.
She said a lot of people were praying for her and offering support to her family. She had help from the school where she works as well as her church, Hope City in Houston.
“There was an amazing outpouring of love that has blown me away,” she said.
Her husband Chase and children Hunter and Hailey have been her biggest supporters. He mother retired a couple months earlier than planned so she could help out at home.
Harrell is a third grade teacher at Sealy Elementary School and plans to return to the classroom in January. She said she was “super quarantined” at home during the summer but feels safe returning to the school despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We will have masks and face shields … I’m not worried about it,” she said.
Both Harrell and Hankins are doing what they can to help others. Hankins does breast cancer walks and often talks with women going through treatment. Harrell said she is trying to “pay it forward for other people as well.”
“Our emphasis is on the positive,” she said.