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Leukemia survivor heals body and soul


Being diagnosed with a terminal illness like cancer can be life shattering. For Darlene Harris, it was an opportunity to reflect on her life. She’s a certified massage therapist at Peace of Body, Peace of Mind in Richmond. The name of her business reflects a state of mind she has reached 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.

I met Harris at a Team in Training event. The organization trains marathon runners and walkers who raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Harris and I are what they call "honorees" – people who have had a bout with a blood cancer and now pay visits to marathoner trainings to inspire them and cheer them on, as living examples of what the money they raise for research can do.

At a recent training in the Richmond Marina, Harris and I set up a water stop. While we waited for runners and walkers to come by, thirsty for a drink – or some encouragement – Harris shared her story with me.

After her diagnosis with leukemia, Harris was hospitalized for 68 days for treatment. She says that gave her time “to unload things [she] had suppressed in [her] life.” Abandonment, molestation, and an abusive marriage were some of the memories she was keeping inside, she says. “But through all of those, my faith in God … kept me alive and well.”

Harris began putting her feelings to paper for the first time while laying in her in hospital bed. She says while her body was healing, her soul needed healing, too. She started writing about her troubling experiences. “Some of them was very painful for me to write about,” Harris says. “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.” Harris says she had trouble writing about these experiences because she “didn’t wanna remember it ever again.”

Abandonment by her father is another painful memory for Harris. She recalls her feelings as a child, seeing young kids, teens, ands adults having dinner with their fathers, having conversations with their fathers. One particular moment is etched in her memory. She was nine years old, walking down the street, and saw a girl walking with her dad.

“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?”

Cheering on the runners at Team in Training events has helped Harris transform this sadness into excitement. Every once in a while, we stop our conversation, ring a set of purple cowbells, and offer some water and Gatorade to the runners coming in. “Hold on, here they come! Here they come!! Woohoo!” Harris exclaims. The sweaty, panting runners have their drinks, a quick chat, and are on their way.

When Harris found out about Team in Training, she was touched that the runners were raising funds for leukemia. “For people to take their body and run, walk, jog 13.1 or 26.2 miles to raise funds to help cure this – I needed to be a part of this,” Harris said.

As an honoree, 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. She has 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. Soon, she says, she might take on the running trail herself. “It’s my joy to be out here,” she says. “Eventually I might get a half a marathon in, but I'm not promising anybody 26.2 miles!”

Darlene Harris has put her life story in a new book, Pressing On – Embracing Peace through it All


Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.