Leukemia survivor heals body and soul
Being diagnosed with an illness connected to death – like cancer – can be life shattering. Or, it can be a reason to reflect on life, and for many, that in itself is healing.
That's what Darlene Harris did. She’s a certified massage therapist at Peace of Body, Peace of Mind in the city of Richmond. The name of her business reflects a lot of what she has now come to, after living many years of what she calls misery – from a disturbed childhood, to a failed marriage, to being diagnosed with leukemia at age 45.
KALW’s Hana Baba met Darlene at "Team in Training" – TNT for short – an organization that trains marathon runners and walkers while raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Darlene is what they call an "honoree" – someone who has had a bout with a blood cancer. She goes out to where they train to inspire them and cheer them on, as a live example of what the money they raise can do. At a recent training, Darlene and Baba set up a water stop, and while they waited for runners and walkers to come by, thirsty for a drink – or some encouragement – Darlene shared her story.
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DARLENE HARRIS: After realizing I had leukemia and I had to stay in the hospital for 68 days, it gave me time to unload things I had suppressed in my life, and those things revealed itself to me. One was, I had abandonment issues with not having a father growing up. Molestation in my life, coming from a dear family member. Abusive marriage – beaten pretty bad where comas and blindness came about. But through all of those, my faith in God … kept me alive and well. Through going all of those, I was able to keep a large sense of humor and say that these people that's doing these things to me have issues but I don’t have to have them with them.
HANA BABA: And, for the first time, she began to put it all on paper, while laying in her in hospital bed. She said, while she was healing her body, she needed to heal her soul.
HARRIS: Each day something would come across my mind of how I survived and began to write about all these issues I was going through. Some of them was very painful for me to write about, sometimes I start writing about something, especially the molestation part … I’d only get a sentence in per day or I’d even let it alone for a week, or just let it go until I could feel better about writing because I suppressed it cause I didn’t wanna remember it ever again.
BABA: What were some things that were too hard to write about first?
HARRIS: One was talking about abandonment. I didn’t put all my feelings as a child in there, for instance about seeing other people – young kids, teens, adults having dinner with their father, walking with their father, conversations with their fathers. And my emotion of how I was walking one day – I was nine – and I seen a girl walking holding her dad’s hand, and how emotional…
BABA: It’s okay … you’re back at that moment right now?
HARRIS: Yes. How I had stepped to the side by a tree and watched them pass by, and had my lil fantasy of what my father would look like, and me walking with him so happy. And it took me a while to come out of that little trance, and went on to school, but I was sad that day, cause why nobody don’t want me? What kind of person I am that they could make me and not want me?
Darlene looks up to the sky, wipes her tears from behind her glasses, and looks to the right. In an instant, she is transformed from sad to excited when she sees her TNT team starting to show up.
HARRIS: Hold on, here they come! Woohoo!
BABA: Every once in a while, we're going to have to stop, ring the bell, and offer some water and Gatorade to the runners coming in! Hello, hello!
The sweaty, panting runners have their drinks, a quick chat, and are on their way, and we get back to Darlene's story. Past the agony, on to the hopeful.
BABA: When did you start with TNT?
HARRIS: One morning I saw the TNT and I burst out crying, and asked them what miles were they doing? They told me 18, and I was like oh my God, this is fab! I wanted to participate right then and there.
When I realized TNT was a cause raising funds for something that I had, all I knew was I wanted to be part of this. I never met so many caring coaches and mentors and honorees! Not only was I one but so many other people that had blood disorders, and for people to take their body and run, walk, jog 13.1 or 26.2 miles to raise funds to help cure – I needed to be a part of this.
Darlene closes her eyes and she takes in deep breaths of the morning's crisp air. Then, along comes the TNT East Bay team's coach, a muscular, middle-aged man on a sleek bike. It's his job to make sure the runners are on track and okay. These are the people Darlene says she just adores.
ALFONSO JACKSON: I'm Alfonso Jackson. I’m East Bay head coach. I’ve been with TNT since 1997, and the East Bay rocks! You wanna know why? People ask me what I do, and I say, “I train heroes. That's what I do. I train heroes to fight cancer!” And I love it.
As honoree Darlene Harris passes out water and encourages her team members on, her 57-year-old smile never leaves her face, and she's glowing with a positive energy that's contagious. The energy of a survivor. She's free from leukemia, free from the agony of haunting memories, and is now part of a cause that's working to heal others. And, she says, next time, she might take on the running trail herself.
HARRIS: Every time I see them coming in, I root for them, “Go team! You go! Team in Training!” I ring my bells and let them know I love them and appreciate them training for this event for people with blood disorders. It’s my joy to be out here, and eventually I might get a half a marathon in, but I'm not promising anybody! (laughs)