Kelli Harrer, one of our Laboratory Technicians at The Spine & Pain Institute of New York, is battling cancer.
We, her colleagues, hold her in great esteem, and have created this GoFundMe page in her honor.
Kelli has paid out of pocket in excess of $20k for medical expenses to fight cancer and pursue the life she wants to live. Here, we are hoping to raise at least half of that, at $10k, to lessen the burden on her.
Please donate whatever amount you can. No donation is too small.
The Spine & Pain Institute of New York
Pictures of Kelli:
My name is Kelli Harrer and I am 32 years old.
On May 4, 2017, I was diagnosed with diffuse large B-Cell lymphoma. I am sharing with you my story.
I appreciate any and all help that you would kindly provide in recuperation of my medical expenses incurred this year.
Two years ago, I cracked my clavicle in half while punching a heavy bag at a kickboxing gym. The pain was gradual but eventually it got to the point where there was black-out pain when raising my arms above my head. I went to the emergency room for an x-ray. The next day they called me and said go to an orthopedic oncologist; there is a lesion in your bone. I was very frightened while we were figuring out what it was. It was due to a benign bone cyst. Afterwards, my aunt told me that they are common in my family.
Fast forward to February 2017. My shoulder started hurting, and I thought I strained my shoulder somehow, by lifting a case of water or something. I couldn’t recall doing anything to hurt it though. Maybe it was another bone cyst. So, I went to urgent care to get an x-ray. The doctor there said he did not see any cysts, but I did have a slight separation of my AC joint in my shoulder. Common injury, take some Tylenol, rest it, you will be fine, no problem.
Eight weeks later, it hurts even more. I wanted to start doing pushups as I was supposed to be getting married in October, but I just physically couldn’t. I couldn’t even push a plug into a wall outlet. I had no strength, it hurt a lot, I couldn’t sleep on it, and getting changed was really, really painful. I went for a massage. The therapist said he had worked in a physical therapy office and he advised me to “go to the pain, not through the pain.” So maybe the next day, as I moved to put my hair in a ponytail, it hurt A LOT. Then I heard a pop, and the pain was like fire. Three days passed, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I finally visited our Dr. Cary Chapman , and he sent me for an MRI. A couple of days later they tell me that I have a tumor in my shoulder and that he was going to refer me to NYU to see an oncologist there. I was told that tumors could mean several different things, so not to panic. We’ll see what it is. It’s probably nothing.
Simultaneously, I requested getting a biopsy because I’m thinking it’s another bone cyst the whole time.
My strategy is to just get in there, figure it out, 1,2,3, let’s get this over with.
Thursday April 27th, was the day of my biopsy, and still thinking it should be nothing serious, we booked our wedding that night.
The weekend passes. I call the doctor on Monday [May 1st] to see if he had any news, and he said, “We suspect lymphoma. Are you familiar with what lymphoma is?"
--Yes, I was. WHAT?! This is crazy!
I was referred to another oncologist, who needed to do a bone marrow biopsy and I was also sent for a PET scan right away. The PET scan I had done on Wednesday [the 3rd]. No problem, everything is fine, my glucose is fine, my labs were all normal. This must all be some mistake.
On Thursday May 4th, the next day, I go for the consultation with the new oncologist.
He comes in, sits, and he asks, “Did they tell you what they think is going on”?
I say, “Yes, they think that I might have lymphoma.”
He replies, “You do. And actually it is quite advanced.”
He showed me the image of my PET scan. I had it in my shoulder, I had a huge mass in my pelvic cavity, and I had spots all over my lungs. I was horrified.
He continues to tell me that I have all this cancer around my body, it is advanced, and that this kind is quite aggressive. It’s also very common in America… I was stunned and the words were just not being absorbed. I was standing around by myself, just walking in circles.
Do You Want to Have Children?
And then he asked me if I want to have kids. I said yes, of course. He replied, “Oh boy.”
He didn’t even want to wait two weeks until I began chemo, because that’s how aggressive the cancer was. I freaked out, scared to pieces about what was going on inside of me.
The doctor called a colleague at NYU Fertility Center. He set me up with a very, very wonderful and accommodating doctor who saw me the next morning, and started me on all the IVF shots. They have to stimulate the follicles to produce a lot of eggs, harvest my eggs, and freeze them for the future. So, I did that twice a day for two weeks. I was taking three shots twice a day, had the harvesting, and they could only get one ovary’s worth because a tumor was blocking the left ovary. But luckily, they got 14 eggs out of the one. We had eight of them fertilized. Hopefully, that should be enough.
I celebrated Mother’s Day, and I wished my fiancé a happy Father’s Day. We have embryos in a freezer out there. Eight babies floating around, potentially. It’s weird, but it’s okay.
Work & Emotions
So, two weeks went both slow and fast. It was a walking, emotional hell. I went to the doctor about four days a week for blood work and sonograms. All I wanted was to get the chemotherapy treatments going, but I had to wait. It was all for a good cause, but it was torture.
I worked almost every day. Joe was the first person I told, actually. We’re really good friends, aside from just being coworkers. He was there when they called me about the lymphoma, so I just turned around and told him. You can’t just keep that inside, when your friend is sitting in a chair near you. He’s been amazing. He even shaved his head over the summer in solidarity with me.
As everything was progressing he shared it with our superiors, so the practice was aware of what was going on with me. Given the type of disease I have, and the treatment that they wanted to do, we figured I might be out of commission. I didn’t know how I was going to react to the treatments. People have horror stories about chemo.
And as this all progresses you still have bills to pay. Your regular bills and now these new massive hospital payments. IVF wasn’t covered under my insurance, so what was my option here? Either pay out of my nose for it, or never have children. The scans and procedures are thousands of dollars each. It was just a very overwhelming time. Emotionally, I was scared for my life. And then for the money to just be seemingly hemorrhaged out of your bank account -- it's all a very anxiety-inducing time. And I know stress is bad for cancer, so I start getting nervous about being stressed. Having cancer is mentally ravaging.
My oncologist wanted to get me into a research trial. So, I went to yet another oncologist for immunotherapy drugs, in addition to the standard R-CHOP chemotherapy. The trial drug is called Atezolizumab, which has high success rates with bladder cancer, but they wanted to see if it would work with lymphoma. And I’m also on another immunotherapy called Rituxan (or Rituximab), which is huge in treating the kind of cancer that I have.
I’m with my third oncologist now, whom I love. He said I need six to eight rounds of chemo.
I also had a bone marrow biopsy done in between this, because they thought I might have Burkitt’s lymphoma, which is worse than what I have. I had to get a soft tissue biopsy done, because both the results of my first biopsy with the shoulder, and the bone marrow biopsy, had two different cells. So, I had to get a soft tissue biopsy, to see which one it was.
That was the very next day after they harvested my eggs. I feltl that I was constantly getting poked and prodded. I felt violated, and emotionally spent.
It turned out that it was the diffuse large B-cell, which is like a notch below the Burkitt’s. So, I wouldn’t have to be hospitalized for my treatments. “Thank God for small mercies,” I told my doctor when he told me the results. And that’s how I looked at almost all of the news: to get through this, keep being positive. I’ll just take the little that they give me, and run with it. If I can work, I work. Do the best I can with what I got.
They say it’s cumulative, the effects of the chemo. I started off strong. The first day after the chemo, I was fine. Now consecutively, I’m more tired for longer. I’ve done five rounds so far. I just had one on Friday.
On treatment days, I get there at 8:30 in the morning. I start with my blood work. Next, I go see my doctor. Then I go to the infusion floor and I do pre-meds. Then they hook me up to the immunotherapy drugs, and finally the standard chemo treatment.
September 22nd is my last chemo session. Afterwards, I have to do immunotherapies every three weeks, for a few more cycles. Then a year’s worth of “maintenance” infusions. But I’ll be done with the standard chemo. So, the stuff that makes me sick, that’s going to be done in September, hopefully.
Outside vs. Inside
I’m 31. I’m going to be 32 at the end of this month, and I want to have a family. That’s why we were going to have a quick engagement: we wanted to start this. I told a research person this, and he said, “Let me be honest with you, let’s hope that we get to that point”. That scared me so much I started to cry in that room. How is this my life?!
I heard staff talking behind the scenes. They were saying that I’m in really bad shape; they couldn’t believe that I was holding up as well as I was. I didn’t feel any pain, I wasn’t sick. I was even doing Zumba the week that I got diagnosed! It just didn’t make sense. And my doctor said to another doctor who was following him around one day that my case and my disease-- they don’t make sense, there’s a huge discrepancy between what I’m presenting as, and what’s really going on, on the inside.
I had to get another PET scan and another echocardiogram right before I started the treatments for the drug trial protocol. I was panicking, thinking that it was taking so long to start this, and I am getting overtaken with cancer every day we wait! I didn’t feel worse, but according to the PET scan, which is used for cancer detection, it got worse. It had now also spread to the tail of my pancreas, and I had a lesion in my vertebrae.
I didn’t know this. I only found out recently, because at the halfway mark I asked if we could get another PET scan to see how we’re doing. This way if we need to intervene, we could.
Everything was normal. My blood work is normal, my blood counts are normal. I’ve been normal this whole time; it just doesn’t make any sense. I still can’t believe I have cancer. I look myself in the mirror, and I’m like how did this happen? I still feel good. I’m just sick for a few days after the chemo. I have it on Friday’s, and then Friday night, Saturday and Sunday I’m wiped out. It’s like a solid hangover is the best way to describe it. My stomach and my head is just -- everything is just really off, you feel sick and all you want to do is flop from the couch to the bed and just lay down and rest. But then I’m also on steroids, because part of the treatment therapy is prednisone (the P in the CHOP). So, I’m wired and tired, and I’m not sleeping. Usually I’m a good sleeper, but now I’m not. Due to the treatment I’m all out of whack.
But everything looks like it’s going well and I’m so blessed-- really, I feel that I’ve been taking it so well this whole time. I’ve gone to work, I’ve missed days and hours here and there to go to doctor’s appointments, or if I’m very tired I’ll either go home early, or I’ll sleep in late. But Joe’s amazing, and everybody at work is amazing, and understanding about being flexible. I’m in the best work place. I have the best possible situation to deal with this right now.
My life got put on hold and it stinks. I don’t know why it happened, but I feel very, very blessed, and I hope whatever lesson will be learned.
Of course, I was very scared when this started happening. But I kind of just thought of it as, grab the bull by the horns, and let’s do what we got to do. I did have to make peace with the fact that I might die, which is scary because I’m 31 years old. I thought, "Why can’t I just get a break right now in life?" My parents and grandparents are gone. I’ve suffered a lot of loss in my life. And finally, this year, I was going to get married, I’m working in a nice place, finally in the professional world after working full time and going to school part time forever to get here. And I can’t catch a break. Now I have cancer. How did this happen?
But things happen. And I am very resilient; I know this from everything I’ve gone through in my life. And if anybody can do it, I can, and I did.
Friends, Family and Faith
I don’t physically feel bad, so it’s easy to forget that I’m this sick. I have a great support system; my fiancé, Michael, has been by my side through everything, my friends are fantastic, my family is wonderful, Michael’s family is so supportive, and like I said Joe is great. Susan, in our Authorizations department, who is a cancer survivor herself, has been an exceptional presence in my life, and really all of the women in our Victory office upstairs have become my family.
Honestly, I was living in purgatory and hell, but the angels on earth that came out really touched me. It makes me believe in special things on earth, as well. Everybody dies. My death may come now, or maybe it won’t. If I die, my family will be waiting for me there, so it is what it is. I don’t want to leave yet, but if I do, I do. But put your faith in the medicine, put your faith in God, and just keep on rolling with it.
Actually, Joe and I were at lunch one day, before my treatment started, it was a couple days after I got the diagnosis and some old guy came into Wendy’s and he sat right near us, didn’t even buy anything, and turned around and started telling jokes to me out of nowhere. So, Joe is facing me, and the guy is behind him, and he’s telling these corny jokes. We couldn’t help but laugh. The man then went on to say “I just wanted to let you know, keep your faith in God, and everything will be fine, he’s going to get you through this.”
Joe looked at me and asked, “How did he know?” We weren’t talking about it or anything. I just got diagnosed, so you couldn’t tell that I had cancer (still had a lot of hair and I surely wasn’t wasting away). We were both really freaked out the whole way back to the office. I started crying, because I thought, how strange that God sent me a message, that He cares enough to console me, and reassure me. Out of the billions of people, he made sure that someone came and sent a message to me, so I could know that He’s with me. I haven't considered myself particularly religious, and I’m not superstitious, but if it was a movie, this guy would have been one of those guardian angels that just walks into someone’s life, says or does something foreshadowing, and then he’s gone. That’s exactly how I felt.
So, I just try to keep that with me, and it helps a lot. And just little things, I can’t remember other particulars right now, just lots of little signs. I’m doing great, and I just thank God, all the time, absolutely.
I’m very blessed. Many people have cancer, and many people suffer a lot more than I have. So, I feel really blessed in that. I am getting through it with strength and so much gratitude. My doctor handled my case so well, and my body is taking it so well. I can’t ask for more. It put a pause on my life, but so what?
My fiancé, Michael, is like a cold drink of water to me. He’s very refreshing for me, in who he is. He’s definitely not typical, according to society’s standards, but I love it. He's incredibly interesting and I consider him my kind of weird. He makes my life better and I enjoy him very, very much. He is, however, a little bit more mushier than I am. In the beginning, he took this news really hard and he is terrible at masking his emotions. I told him, “I can’t watch your face like this. I’m having a hard enough time, I can’t look at you being miserable.” And I don’t know if he turned to his family or his friends, but whatever it was, he turned around within a week and has been my rock.
Michael is really anything you can ask for in a partner. I don’t need a lot, I don’t ask a lot, but I know he is always there for me, and nothing is too little or big for him to help me with. He takes care of me, and thankfully he hasn’t really changed throughout this whole thing. Internally, I think he has, and he said that I have given him a different outlook on life; that he has reprioritized many things. But when it comes to our relationship, nothing really changed. And that’s what I wanted; I didn’t want anything to change. I didn’t want anybody to treat me differently. Maybe he values me more, but I feel like I value him more. I just appreciate everything he does, and he does everything that I could possibly want.
As for our wedding day, the doctor said that we should probably postpone, so we did. We rescheduled it to November 11, 2018. We’re having it at The Brownstone, and they didn’t give us a problem about it. They didn’t ask for a deposit back or hassle us about anything. They said, “Of course. We’re so sorry to hear that this happened.” Incredibly accommodating. And 11/11 will be easier for Michael to remember our anniversary!
To the Audience: Life
To anyone going through something similar, I know it sounds so cliché, but staying positive is huge. Don’t let bad circumstances eat at your soul, because life is really beautiful. Appreciate it. It’s about the little things that you encounter every day.
I used to think that life is boring, and I was wasting it by just going to work, and going home and cooking dinner and cleaning -- and then what else do I do? I have nothing else to do. It’s just the regular daily grind.
Now, I’m just grateful for having a cozy home to live in, food to cook, a work environment that I enjoy, and people I like to talk to. I’m just grateful for everything in my life now, and that’s important.
I make sure I voice my gratitude all the time, and that really helps. I think it brings good energy. You put it out, you get it back, it’s very refreshing.
Trust the doctors. The medicine works these days. It’s scary, but you just have to give it a try and see. Don’t count yourself out until you at least try. People often apologize to me for complaining about their problems in light of mine. But I do not think theirs are less significant than mine. Everybody is going through something. Everybody’s situations are different, but they’re important all the same. Have faith.
I can’t believe I’m saying these things… I was never really crazy churchy, or anything like that. I didn’t want something so catastrophic to have to make me believe in God, but I can’t deny what it’s done for me this whole time. I’ve only been sick since May, and it’s September, and I feel like a completely different person. I’m not ashamed to say these things, and I truly believe them. God is with us. Through all of these tribulations here, there’s a plan for you, and life is a story. That’s it, you ride the rollercoaster, and try to look at it that way. Like, “Why do this?” “I don’t know! - let’s keep on reading, and see what happens." That’s exactly how I feel. In the end, I hopefully die at an old age, and it will be finished. And it will be a very interesting story. Then we can go be with God, and be happy.
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