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College of Nursing


Cancer Survivorship Center

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Deborah Harley: Wisdom from the breast cancer journey

Eleven years ago, Deborah Harley of Dillon received the news no one wants to hear: You have cancer.

Because five of her 11 siblings have been diagnosed with cancer, when Harley found a lump in her right breast that would not go away, she scheduled an appointment with her doctor.

Harley’s cancer journey has taken her through various treatments — surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and hormone therapy pills — and through nagging and sometimes debilitating side effects.

But although she was diagnosed with stage four disease, Harley’s cancer is in remission. She sings in her church choir and says she wakes up every day grateful to be alive.

Knowing first-hand the challenges that follow a cancer diagnosis, Harley was eager to participate in a research study conducted by Tisha Felder, an assistant professor and researcher in the College of Nursing.

“I’m not an expert, but if I can help somebody along the way or help enlighten them to the situation, then that’s what I like to do,” Harley explains.

Felder’s research aims to improve care outcomes for low-income and minority patients, whose cancer is more likely to return or lead to death and are often underserved and understudied by the health care system. For Felder’s study, which sought to identify factors that could improve the rate of Medicaid-eligible breast cancer patients who take hormone medication as prescribed, she interviewed 20 women in South Carolina’s Midlands and Upstate areas, including Harley, to learn about their cancer experiences and challenges.

Harley shared three lessons that were critical to her successful cancer journey.

Listen to your body and respect it. Harley says she knows many people who have died from cancer. She encourages people to see their doctor right away if they have health concerns. She also says it is important to work through your fears about cancer and value yourself enough to follow through with appointments and treatment.

Don’t make the journey alone. Harley received invaluable social support from family members who cared for her and accompanied her to medical appointments. Her church family offered meals and prayers, and she also found community at Caring House, a housing center for patients at Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina, where she received some treatments.

“There’s so many people that in a sense are ashamed of having cancer, so secretive,” Harley says. “I wasn’t like, this is my problem all to myself and I have to work it out all by myself. I had my family support — all of my brothers and sisters, anything I needed, any way they could help. My church family was there for me.

“Anybody, if they knew about it, would help give you support, but if they don’t know about it, they won’t do anything.”

Partner with your health care team. Harley was most comfortable with the providers who listened to her concerns, and she replaced caregivers who did not. The strong relationship between Harley and her health care team helped her to effectively fight the disease and work through side effects, such as itching that kept her awake at night (which was actually neuropathy pain) and limited arm movement (which resolved after radiation and physical therapy).