Harris one of local cancer survivors

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Any other person who has lived with the specter of cancer for more than half his life could be expected to be depressed, anxious or full of resentment.

Not David A. Harris.

First diagnosed with melanoma when he was 29, Harris has found a way to remain upbeat and positive for more than three decades in spite of constant setbacks. Not only has he learned to deal with cancer, he and his wife Elouise, who has faced her own bout with the disease, encourage others to watch for cancer’s warning signs and get regular checkups.

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It’s the fight against cancer that is the focus of Relay For Life, the annual fund-raiser in Marengo County to benefit the American Cancer Society and its support of cancer research, education and patient support.

The event will be held Friday, April 29, at the River Field in Demopolis. Teams throughout the county are competing for prizes by raising the most money. During Relay for Life each team will set up a booth to offer food and fun as their members take turns walking around the track.

Cancer was the last thing on his mind when, at age 29, Harris had a growth on his chest taken out. The surgery required a massive incision and removal of muscle, tissue and lymph nodes in the same way as a mastectomy. Laboratory tests came back positive for melanoma, a cancer of the skin.

Looking back, Harris admitted he was a perfect candidate for that form of cancer. He has fair skin and spent hours in the sun.

Harris became depressed when he was encouraged to get his affairs in order because he had only six months to live. Being told he was going to die “kinda knocked the props out,” he said. But his attitude changed. “Once I beat the deadline I never looked back.”

Six years later the cancer came back, this time as a growth on his waist.

“He’s been cut from his navel to his backbone,” said his wife.

For 10 years after the second surgery, Harris was clear. Then, while on a cruise with his wife, he became hoarse. At first he thought it was because he had been exposed to ammonium nitrate, which he was using on his farm to blow up stumps.

His physician, Dr. Julius Hicks of Birmingham, ran tests and discovered Harris could breathe only 30 percent of his capacity because of a rapidly growing tumor in his esophagus.

Hicks chose to “debulk” the tumor with a laser.

When the lab results came back, the diagnosis of the cancer in his throat also was melanoma, the first in recorded medical history. “They have no idea” what triggered it, said Harris.

He underwent radiation therapy, but less than two years later the tumor in his throat came back. This time he was treated with both radiation and chemotherapy. He never lost his hair, but a three-inch section of his esophagus collapsed from the radiation.

There was no solution except to give him a tracheotomy and fit him with a voice synthesizer, which he now has used for almost four years. Harris holds a wand to the voice box at his throat. The voice that emerges is an electronic monotone.

The “trach” hasn’t bothered him at all, he said.

His wife is a little more specific. “Once they gave him the wand, he hasn’t shut up.”

The Harrises learned how to clean the trach, which is done four or five times a day. “It’s a lot easier to keep clean when you clean it regularly,” said Harris.

Now 62, Harris hasn’t let a little thing like bouts of melanoma stop him. What bothered him the most is that “friends act like what you have is catching or that you don’t want to be bothered.”

He’s feeling fine now, still putting in long days in the hay field, and occasionally going to his doctor to check out another growth he has discovered. Recently he had one removed from his neck that was diagnosed as cancerous, but not melanoma.

“David is just a walking miracle,” said his wife. “Melanoma is the worst cancer you can have because it takes your body one piece at a time.”

During all his long fight against cancer, Harris held down a career in the U.S. Army for 31 years, serving as a recruiter for the last 24. He also was a member of the National Guard and Army Reserve. He retired as a sergeant first class with 21 ribbons to his credit.

Mrs. Harris has had her own bout with melanoma, a growth she discovered on her arm.

It was removed successfully, and she continues to keep a close watch for any other signs it may be returning.

In fact self examination is one of the methods of prevention that the Harrises stress. They encourage people to know the signs of melanoma, especially if they are fair-skinned and spend a lot of time in the sun: discoloration of a mole, change in the shape of a mole, bleeding and asymmetrical shape of mole.

Harris more than likely won’t take part in the Survivor Walk during Relay For Life. “I’ll probably be in the hayfield,” he explained.