Now cancer-free, Janesville woman has chance to give others hope

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Mike DuPre'
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
— Marnie Harris felt it.

She believes she felt the touch of God.

"I felt the push, and I knew God was there," the 43-year-old Janesville woman said. "I knew he placed his hand on me. And within seconds, Mike said, 'I just got a really good feeling, that today everything is going to be OK.'"

Mike is Mike Harris, Marnie's husband.

What Mike felt would be OK was something most definitely not OK:

Malignant, metastasized, Stage 4 bone cancer.

Stage 4 is the medical term for what most lay people call terminal.

No stranger to cancer

Marnie is quite familiar with cancer, much more familiar than most folks ever want to be.

Marnie also is familiar to many families, perhaps hundreds, in Janesville and to scores of local women who survived breast cancer.

For 13 years, Marnie, a 1983 graduate of Janesville's Parker High School, was the pediatric nurse for Dr. Mark Goelzer. They saw about 40 kids a day in their practice.

Marnie married Mike in 1999. It was her second marriage. They have three sons: Jens, 15; Ian, 10, and Cole, 8.

Shortly after Cole was born in 2000, Marnie was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, a one-centimeter tumor in a milk duct. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.

Cancer already had ripped into Marnie's life. Lung cancer killed her mother, Mary McKeown, at age 62.

Marnie endured 10 months of chemotherapy—three weeks on the cancer-killing poison, three weeks off.

"It felt like five years," Marnie said as she relaxed recently with a visitor.

They sat in the Harrises' well-kept backyard in northwest Janesville by the bubbling fountain Marnie recently built.

"I was just sicker than a dog," she said. "I couldn't even barely function, but my white (blood cell) count was still dropping. I could barely climb the stairs.

"It would only last a couple of days after treatment. It was like the worst hangover on top of flu on top of getting hit by a truck—with a new baby and a 2-year-old. Jens was 7."

She then went through 12 weeks of radiation therapy, every day Monday through Friday.

"I worked up until the third round of chemo. Then I just couldn't do it. I made it as long as I could. I worked during radiation. I took treatments during lunch hour."

The next year, 2001, a battery of tests showed Marnie's cancer was in remission.

"I just hate that word because I felt like I was in the clear."

Connecting with God

Marnie was headed back to the medical profession, but she would first spend a year and half working at Riverfront Athletic Club & Spa in downtown Janesville.

She is what some might call a fitness freak. She was a runner for 18 years and taught weight-training at the YMCA. Marnie now works out twice a day and rides a bike eight to 10 miles a day three days a week.

"I'm feeling stronger than I have in the last couple of years," she said.

During her time at the spa, Marnie had her spiritual and religious epiphany.

The owner of the spa, Christi Newell, is a member of New Life Assembly of God Church and Marnie's good friend.

"She would just pray with me at the spa. I wasn't used to that," said Marnie, who was raised Roman Catholic.

"She said, 'Let me pray with you for a minute, just to help you for today, just to help with strength and courage.'

"I said, 'Let me check out your church' because Roman Catholics didn't do that, just pray personally, just have a personal relationship with God. I came from such a strict Roman Catholic family. It just seemed like there was more to it."

About the third time Marnie visited New Life Assembly of God, "I went down on my knees," she said. "It was incredible. I never had anything like that as a Roman Catholic. ...

"The music pastor was singing. I got this overwhelming feeling. I started shaking. I felt God was speaking to me—that I was going to be OK—and he forgave my sins. I just felt that he was going to help me and that he was going to protect me.

"And all I had to ask."

'Embrace every day'

Marnie didn't know then that she still had a lot of asking to do.

And a lot of work helping other women who had endured what she had endured.

In 2006, Marnie returned to the medical profession as a medical assistant to Dr. Jacob Gerzenshtein, a plastic surgeon at Mercy Hospital in Janesville who reconstructs the breasts of women who have undergone mastectomies.

"I didn't want to leave Christi at the spa. It definitely was a healing refuge. I got so much strength there," Marnie said. "I just started praying on it. I kept getting back from him (God) to give back to women who had gone through the same steps and walked as I had.

"Who better to relate to exactly what they're going through? I knew that's where my purpose is. I was ready to give back to breast surgery patients."

Marnie had experienced the pain—the initial pain of recuperation from radical surgery, then the ongoing discomfort as temporary implants were expanded weekly to push out muscles to accept the permanent implants.

"And on top of it, you're usually going through chemo at the same time, so you're sick and have pain and have all the side effects of chemo.

"It's horrible. It's a lot on a woman especially if you have kids, and most of the younger women work. …

"I had felt exactly what they felt. You're kind of their lifeline. You give 'em hope: You're still living, still kicking, still looking good.

"Just live every day. Embrace every day."

Relying on faith

Now a born-again, evangelical Pentecostal Christian, Marnie started taking her boys to her new church because she valued the church's children's programs.

Mike soon followed.

They now rely on God to run their lives, Marnie said.

"Let's say I'm really scared today. I have an uneasy feeling. I'll just pray and ask him to help me do it.

"He'll give me peace. I feel the peace come over me. Nine times out of 10, things will just calm down. It's immediate.

"I'll do it with a patient. Somebody will be upset and crying. I used to fumble with my words. Now it just flows. Some women say they can only talk to Marnie."

Cancer's return

Marnie would need her own person to talk to.

In May 2007, she went in for her annual in-remission checkup. Though a bone scan was not usually part of the exam, "I would demand it," Marnie said.

"I had some aching in my right hip. It showed a little (pre-cancerous) activity the year before, but not enough to pursue anything. I thought maybe it was arthritis."

A series of scans showed more activity. A bone biopsy delivered the bad news: malignant, metastasizing, Stage 4.

"We called our pastor (the Rev. Michael Jackson). He came over and prayed with Mike and I and the kids," she recalled.

"We prayed for strength and courage so that we were going to go through this with grace and to give the doctors the wisdom to know how to treat it and to help me beat it."

Marnie had put her faith in God but now had been essentially told her days were numbered.

But she did not feel cheated or abandoned, Marnie said, "because I still felt like he was using me for a purpose because I now have all that much more experience and knowledge to share with bone cancer patients."

She continued to work even though "it is tough working around cancer if you have it."

She underwent another breast reconstruction because her radiation treatments had contracted her implants.

Marnie started taking different medications. The drugs were not to try to eradicate the tumors in her hip, spine and pelvis but simply to keep them from growing.

"It was mostly dull aches, and then some days it really hurt. I'd rate the pain an eight, but I'd just take Aleve because I don't want to be on narcotics. But I'd pray through it, and I'd exercise through it."

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people also prayed for Marnie.

A prayer chain at New Life Assembly of God grew into prayer chains throughout local churches and across the nation.

A prayer for healing

Christmas 2007 was a "great Christmas, just like any other Christmas. We had a great time," Marnie said.

"I never, ever thought like this is my last Christmas. I never thought that way.

"Now don't get me wrong. I have cried. I do get scared. But I have such a fighting spirit, it just goes away.

"I don't have time to be doubtful or fearful."

The next month, Marnie went in for a scan.

"Before I was just praying to shrink the tumor, but the night before I talked to (the) pastor and had been to Bible study class, and I said I want my prayer changed. Up to then I was asking just for shrinking, but now I wanted complete healing—no tumors at all.

"And he said, 'Uh-oh, we've been praying just for shrinkage. I better get on the horn and change this prayer for you.' He went and asked the congregation to pray for complete removal of my tumors."

'Everything is going to be OK'

The PET (positronic emission tomography) scans that Marnie underwent many times are done in a semitrailer that sits outside Mercy Hospital.

Tumors lit up her previous scans like Christmas trees.

Though he had taken her to the hospital many times, Mike had never been in the same room as Marnie when she was being scanned.

"And I had been scanned like a million times," she said.

But for some reason, Mike—a longtime press operator for The Janesville Gazette—made a point of being in the room with Marnie for this scan.

"He knocked on the side of the semi, and he talked really nice, and they said, 'Yeah, he can be up by your head.'

"And I'm like, 'Mike, behave yourself,' because he's always cracking jokes with that dry humor of his. I said, 'Mike, don't get out of hand,' and he said, 'This is nice in here.'

"And I said, 'Yeah, the Cadillac of (scanning) tubes.' You don't feel like you're in a semitrailer. …

"They turn it on. At points you have to hold your breath. It's loud in there. You can't talk. He was gabbing the whole time.

"And I was praying. I always pray during my scans. And it was like 'If this is your (God's) will, show me.'

"That's when I felt like a push on my leg, like a hand.

"At that moment, I felt the push, and I knew God was in there. I knew he placed his hand on me, and within seconds Mike said, 'I just got a really good feeling, that today everything is going to be OK.'"

Strapped immobile in the tube, Marnie couldn't talk to Mike to say, "You should have felt what I just felt."

Giving others hope

Two days later, the Harris family received the scan results: All areas have been resolved.

No tumors.

"We were elated," Marnie said.

Marnie has not been scanned since January. But, she said, blood tests show no return of her cancer.

She continues to take medication.

In May, she would tire quickly during the day, so she quit full-time work as Dr. Gerzenshtein's medical assistant. Marnie recently returned to a two-day-a-week work schedule.

In May, she also gave testimony to her congregation.

She showed them her "lit up like a Christmas tree" scan and her "all areas resolved" scan. Marnie participated in the American Cancer Society's walk and run in June, and she recently spoke at the local anti-cancer Relay for Life event.

She is honorary chairperson for both organizations.

"And I think that's part of God's plan for me: To get up in front of people and give them hope."

In Marnie's view, her cure is not a case of medical versus miracle.

The drugs she takes to shrink cancer are "very effective," she said.

"I think it's a good combination of both," she said. "Not everyone can take the medication. Even my oncologist said, 'I don't get to tell people this very often.'"

And she never thought the diagnosis of her second cancer, the bone cancer, as a death sentence.

"Nope, I've embraced it," Marnie said. "It made me stronger.

"It made me who I am."

Last updated: 10:00 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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