Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

Rare mutation helps local woman beat lung cancer

(L-R): Lisa Hale, a Washington, D.C., Lung Force representative; Marlene Harris; U.S. Rep. Martha McSally; and Kathryn Forbes, chair of the American Lung Association, in Washington on March 16. (Courtesy Marlene Harris)

Marlene Harris is a stage 4 lung cancer survivor. The staff at the University of Arizona Cancer Center call her their “miracle kid.”

“Trust me, I am,” she says.

Harris was diagnosed on Jan. 18, 2013 with stage 4 non-small cell adenocarcinoma, an advanced stage of cancer.

Marlene Harris is grateful for days ahead with her family. Back row (L-R): Phil and Stephanie Magnuson, Kelsey Martin holding Landon Magnuson, David Harris; front row: Harris, Brayden Magnuson, Larry Harris (Photo courtesy Marlene Harris)
Marlene Harris is grateful for days ahead with her family. Back row (L-R): Phil and Stephanie Magnuson, Kelsey Martin holding Landon Magnuson, David Harris; front row: Harris, Brayden Magnuson, Larry Harris (Photo courtesy Marlene Harris)

“My very first thought was that I was not going to see my grandson grow up — he was not quite 2 when I was diagnosed, he was 1 ½ — and that he would forget me,” she says.

“Then I thought: ‘What are my children going to do?’ My son is in college, my daughter is married with a child. I’m never going to be at my son’s wedding. I’m never going to see my grandson grow up or be around when they have other children.”

Family, friends and medical professionals helped Harris travel the long road of diagnosis, surgery and treatment. Along with constant support from her husband, Larry; daughter, Stephanie, and her husband, Phil Magnuson; son, David, and his girlfriend Kelsey Martin, she had crucial help and encouragement from out-of-town relations, including her mother, Frances Braslawsky, who flew in from Chicago and stayed with her for months after her surgery; her twin sister, Leslie Pansky, who flew in from Reno, Nev., multiple times; and her brother, Gary, a retired cancer research scientist, and his wife, Leslie Braslawsky, who came from San Diego for every doctor appointment.

Harris had first noticed a change in her body during one of her routine workouts.

“When I was exercising, I would get like a pain in my chest and a little bit of shortness in breath, but other than that … it was just normal stuff,” she says.

“It just so happened, I had a physical in December and I mentioned it to my internist, so she said because I have heart disease in my family, she wanted me to have a heart CT.”

A Dec. 24, 2012 heart CT appeared normal, although some fluid was found around her lung, which was originally thought to be pneumonia. Later a chest X-ray review triggered thoughts of valley fever, but once her internist and oncologist looked at the film, they were sure it was cancer.

A lung biopsy confirmed that it was cancer — and pointed the way for her treatment by revealing that she had an unusual mutation of a rare gene known as ALK.

In understanding and treating her condition, Harris was determined to be as aggressive as the cancer cells spreading through her body. But luck also played a part.

Her first moment of serendipity came when she learned that there were only two surgeons across the country that could perform the specific surgery needed — and that one of them, Dr. Farid Gharagozloo, was then the head of University Medical Center’s thoracic and robotic surgical department.

“He said he wanted to see me, and he told me that he was going to save my life,” Harris says.

Gharagozloo performed Harris’ surgery on Mar. 8, 2013, removing her right lung, right pleura, diaphragm, all of the lymph nodes under her right arm, and a quarter of her breast.

“After they removed the ventilator tube, he came in to see me and he said: ‘You are now cancer free,’” Harris says.

Her second lucky break came the day after she first met Gharagozloo. “We got the results back from the biopsy testing the mutation and it just so happened that I was one out of I think a handful of people that had the right mutation to take this new drug called Xalkori,” she says.

Out of everyone who has lung cancer, only four percent have the ALK gene. Of that four percent, only one out of four people are eligible to take the drug. Harris took 29 rounds of the drug, where one round was 30 days and meant taking two 500-milligram tablets per day that cost $1,800 each. Her insurance covered a large part of the expense, she says.

Another key member of Harris’ support team was her lifelong friend Anita Kellman, who had started Kellman Beat Cancer Bootcamp some 10 years ago in Tucson. Bootcamp “is a fitness program for cancer survivors and those who love them. The program was developed to help people diagnosed with cancer stay healthy in mind and body,” the program’s website says.

Kellman used some of the same teachings of her program with Harris to encourage her to stay strong.

“Once she understood what she needed to do and not give up, you know, to fight for her life … she was very determined and focused and nothing stopped her,” Kellman says.

Rabbi Robert Eisen of Congregation Anshei Israel, where Harris is a longtime member, provided spiritual and personal comfort. Eisen, she says, went beyond the duties of his position to reach out to her many times personally. He also recommended that she read the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which gave her strength in her time of need.

Looking to the future, Harris will continue to receive regular head and chest scans to guard against the cancer coming back, while confronting the stresses of hypotension (low blood pressure) and some symptoms of neuropathy she developed following her surgery.

She has gained back a lot of strength since she stopped the daily medication in late 2015 and now is an advocate for lung cancer education. She’s on the board of Lung Force, a new American Lung Association initiative, and recently traveled to Washington, D.C., as an Arizona representative to lobby Congress to lend financial support to the National Institutes of Health.

She plans to walk in the Lung Force Walk on the University of Arizona Mall on Oct. 8 and has asked Rep. Martha McSally to join her.

She looks forward to someday dancing at her son’s wedding. She enjoys spending time with her oldest grandson, Brayden, now 4, and her second grandson, Landon, who is now 1 year old.

“You have to take every day and live every day as it comes and cherish every day as it comes,” she says.

To learn more about Kellman Beat Cancer Bootcamp, visit beatcancerbootcamp.com. To learn more about Lung Force, visit lungforce.org.

Michael Miklofsky is a freelance writer living in Oro Valley with his wife and three daughters. He also is a Realtor® with Realty Executives Tucson Elite and director of marketing for The Shoe House, Inc.