EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series featuring the honorary co-chairs for this year's Heart and Sole Cancer Walk in Mitchell, held Friday at Mitchell Middle School. The event begins at 6:30 p.m.
PLANKINTON - "Don't give up ... don't ever give up."
The quote by Jimmy Valvano is one of two tattoos Plankinton native Kirsten Harless, 33, wears on her arms as a reminder to never let the cancer beat her.
Harless' cancer journey began in May 2012 after eight months of intense pain in her jaw. At first, doctors blamed the pain on a clogged salivary gland. After further testing and an appointment with Midwest Ear, Nose and Throat in Sioux Falls, Harless was informed a mass pushing on a nerve was the cause of her pain. Told it was probably just a fatty tumor that needed to be removed, she was scheduled for surgery on July 31, 2012.
"I met with a surgeon over there and he said it would be a routine procedure," Harless said. "I remember him saying there is a very slim chance it could be (cancer)."
The surgery, which was only supposed to take an hour and a half, lasted 3 ½ hours.
A biopsy of the tumor was taken and the slim chance the doctor had spoken of before the surgery changed. In its place stood a cancer called Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma.
Later that year, on Sept. 12, Harless started radiation in Sioux Falls for 30 minutes, five days a week for six and a half weeks. She balanced treatments while working 30 hours a week and taking care of her 2½-year-old son.
But the radiation paid off. A scan after her last treatment on Oct. 23 showed the treatments had been successful.
"This rough part of my life was over, for now," Harless said.
The battle starts again
Four years and the birth of her second son later, Harless went in for her annual scan in January 2016.
"I had gotten so used to these things it was just like a routine, just go there, quick checkup, see you later," she said.
This scan brought the news that cancer was back, this time as six nodes in her lungs. After a second opinion with an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic, Harless and her doctor decided against surgery and chose to attack the two largest nodes with radiation.
This round of radiation was 10 treatments over a period of two and a half weeks and was successful. Significant scarring in the lungs kept Harless from going after the rest of the nodes. Instead, she and her medical team chose to monitor the nodes.
In 2018, a scan found a mass on her left kidney. On Oct. 17, Harless underwent cryoablation surgery to freeze the tumor. Another scan in January this year showed the mass was stable. She completed another 10 treatments in the duration of two and a half weeks in March for a node in her lungs growing too close to her aorta and trachea.
Now with nine total spots, Harless is looking to tackle three nodes on the backside of her lung causing significant pain with a nerve block. Once they pinpoint the node with the nerve block, Harless said radiation from the side may be an option in the future.
Through the thick and thin
Harless has discovered that although the cancer journey can be difficult, terrifying and lonely, you are never alone.
"As much as you feel alone, don't push people away," she said. "Because they're going to be there no matter what."
Her family, friends, and coworkers have never left her side the last seven years. Harless said her mom, sister and stepdad could only drive her to radiation a few days a week but many others in her life stepped up to help.
"I had drivers every day: friends, family," she said. "Everybody offered to drive me."
For the last three and a half years Harless has worked for Mitchell Roofing and Siding, and she said her bosses and coworkers could not be more supportive even throughout her frequent doctor appointments and radiation treatments.
Some of the best and hardest days are spent with her two sons and fiánce, who she says are her biggest rocks.
"My 9-year-old is getting it now," Harless said. "He had a project at school and it said, 'Who's your biggest hero?' He said, 'My mom because she still fights her cancer.' Those days are hard."
Another support group for Harless is her group of girlfriends. Whether making a care package for her to use on the way to her appointments or clearing their schedule for a girls' night, her friends have been there when she needed them.
"I have probably the best group of girlfriends anybody could ask for," Harless said. "I've had a few scares with my liver and a couple other things and they just are there."
Even though Harless appreciates people offering her help, she said what she needs most is help raising awareness about Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma.
"Donate some money to research," Harless said. "I don't need anything. I have what I need."
Her second tattoo by Stuart Scott reads, "You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live." Like both her tattoos, she isn't giving up and refuses to let cancer stand in the way of living life to its fullest. She's going to continue fighting for her family, sons, fiánce and for herself.