Debbie Harris

I am 54 years old, I live in Richmond, BC and I was diagnosed in August 15, 2017 with tumours in the brain. Upon further testing, it was found I have stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer.

It started with a headache that was causing quite a bit of discomfort and pressure. At one point when I went to visit an aunt in the hospital, I was in quite a bit of pain when I tried to move my head. So I went to the hospital to get it checked out. It was thought I had a pinched nerve in my neck, so they sent me for a CT scan. When the doctor came back, she was white as a ghost, and said, I don't know how to tell you this, but you have a tumour on your brain. I was hysterical and crying with my husband from the news. We were in shock. All this while I was in excruciating pain from the headache and being denied any pain relief for a number of hours till I was eventually made comfortable.

At that point, I wanted to go home, to tell my kids, but was told to stay at the hospital to get faster treatment. So I had to call my kids at 2:30 in the morning, after their dad had gone home to talk to them and tell them their mom has cancer. I think the hardest day in my life was calling my kids on the phone, and telling them I have cancer. The next day I went in for a biopsy and it was determined the cancer had started in the lung with metastasis in the brain. Testing showed I had the PDL-1 expression. I also have the KRAS mutation. It was a very busy next two weeks, which had me going for various tests including an MRI, CT scan, bone scan and blood tests. I had no time to process what was happening and it was quite scary. It was then determined I would need surgery to remove the tumour in my brain. Surgery was performed August 24, 2017. After surgery, I was told they found two very large tumours and thankfully both were taken out. All this time, there I was with no symptoms apart from an occasional headache. I just figured I needed more caffeine and not a headache to send me to a doctor or a hospital. The healthcare team were surprised that I had such large tumours and believed they had been there for a while.

Two weeks before they found my cancer, I went to the urologist for a scan. She found what she thought was a tumour. She was actually setting up surgery to remove it and my cancer was found a week later. She called me two days after the tumour was removed in my brain to have surgery to remove the tumour on my bladder and was was surprised when I told her what had happened. The tumour on my bladder was removed August 31st, a week after my brain surgery. Thankfully it was not cancer.

Post surgery, I had radiation therapy. The first was whole brain radiation and the second was on a targeted area. My first day of immunotherapy was November 17th, 2017; I was placed on Keytruda, which helped shrink the tumours. This was stopped in October 2020, as the tumours were considered inactive. Unfortunately, the tumours became became active in the lymph nodes, abdominal area and chest, and I was put back on Keytruda in December 2020. It has been good news, some new tumours have disappeared and some others are shrinking. This time I am getting a double dose of the treatments and after just two months my tumours have shrunk from 3.5 to 1.1cm.

During my diagnostic assessment, there was so much information being thrown at me, a lot of which I did not understand. It would have been nice if my healthcare providers had taken the time to explain some of the information that was provided about my diagnosis and treatment.

One doctor even asked me my termination date. What? I am here trying to live and she was asking about my termination date.

Since my diagnosis, I've had a shoulder replacement. In January 2018, I had really bad pain in my right shoulder, which was thought to be cancer. For about a year and a half, I couldn't do anything with my right arm. The shoulder was radiated and I was given cortisone shots. Eventually, I was seen by a specialist and it was determined the dexamethasone had cut off the blood supply to my shoulder and broke the bone. In the same month, I also developed a pericardial effusion and had 800mls of blood in my pericardial sac. A pericardial window chest tube was inserted and it was removed January 31, 2018.

My family hurts but they have been really strong for me. They don’t want to show me their fears, but I can see it in their faces. Seeing me cry so many tears and all I have been through has not been easy. When I reflect on the last three and a half years, it has been a lot. Even though tomorrow is never promised for any of us, I am going to fight, as long as I possibly can. My family and I are in this together. It’s been tough. My husband had a heart attack and a triple bypass just before my cancer. He was just going back to work when they found the cancer. Looking at my experience, I think it is important to have your full medical report. That way you can take the time to understand your diagnosis and treatment plan. You can also ask your doctor things you do not understand at your next visit. Not all patients understand medical terminologies and if they are not explained to us we will have no idea what we are being told. Our healthcare providers can also recommend resources to provide us with fact-based information so we are not going to Google to search up the information. The only thing I received was the Lung Cancer Canada’s Patients Guide to Lung Cancer pamphlet. It helped provide some information on what I was going through. Today I'm good but I still have my fears. When I was told that I had to go back on immunotherapy, I started crying. I currently have just a tiny tumour in my brain and the cancer has not affected any of my major organs. My healthcare team is happy with how Keytruda has worked for me. I hope it treats all my tumours and I never have to go on treatment again. I look forward to being told by my doctors that I am NED.

My family has been a great support through my journey. My parents would even take me to a doctor's appointment if need be, but I use that as the last resort. I also belong to a Keytruda and I support group, which consists of people with different types of cancer on Keytruda.

My takeaway from my journey is just find out the information, ask the questions, be your own advocate. Even if your oncologists don't have the time to sit with you make them sit with you. If you have a question ask your doctor.