Triple-negative breast cancer survivor is the go-to person for her family, community

June 11, 2024
triple negative breast cancer survivor Sarah Harry poses in a colorful dress in a swirling pattern in the garden
Sarah Harry lost her mother to breast cancer when she was 11 years old. Now, she is a breast cancer survivor herself. Photo by Clif Rhodes

There’s a saying that if you want something done, you should ask a busy woman. Sarah Harry is that woman.

Full-time caregiver for her disabled younger brother? Check.

First vice chair of the women’s auxiliary and member of the Cancer Ministry at Mount Moriah Baptist Church? Check.

Daily exerciser at the senior center, taking up Zumba, pickleball, walking and drumming? Check.

Awesome auntie to twin 8-year-old great nieces who will get up and jump rope or dance with them? Check.

And somewhere in all of that, Sarah is a cancer survivor, coming to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center regularly to continue treatment for metastatic triple-negative breast cancer.

“I always just kept a good attitude. You know, what are you going to do? Like Dr. Brescia says, ‘We’re all going to die, but you’re not dying today, kiddo,’” she said.

From Sumter to Iceland

Sarah is a whirlwind of energy; maybe that comes from growing up in the country outside Sumter, South Carolina, where everyone got up early and got to work.

Her vivacious nature pulls people into conversation – if you come across her at Hollings, she will strike up a conversation; maybe that comes from her natural curiosity about the world.

A reader from a young age, she was always interested in what was happening beyond her small town. A teacher noticed. “She would always say, ‘You're going to see the world.’ And that was what she wrote in my graduation letter: ‘You're going to see the world; you've already read a lot about it, but you’re going to see the world.’”

After high school, she enrolled in a two-year program to earn a degree in accounting. From there, she – and her family – expected that she would go to the University of South Carolina to earn a four-year degree and become a CPA. But Sarah wanted out.

One day, she ended up at the mall, where the various service branches had recruiting stations. Laughing now, she recalls that “The Coast Guard guy was cute. The Army guy was cute, but the Navy guy was the cutest.”

She aced the screening test, but she couldn’t ship out for almost a year. Instead, she embarked on a training program kept secret from her family. The baby girl of the extended family, she was looked after by her father, aunt and grandmother after her mother died of breast cancer when Sarah was 11. They kept her safe and sound in the warm embrace of family and venturing out across the world was not part of the plan. But Sarah was not going to be stopped.

Eventually, she had to break the news to her family, and she headed to Orlando, Florida, for boot camp. After doing well there, she had her pick of duty stations and chose Iceland.

“My instructor said, ‘Why did you pick Iceland?’ And I said it was because when I was in school, I used to read the Enquirer, and I read about Iceland. Some shim-sham guy sold Iceland's waterfalls, and people bought them. He was like, ‘You are so weird. You don't want to go to Alaska? You don't want to go to Chicago?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m going to Iceland,’” she recalled.

“And I was sick as a dog. Never saw snow in my life. The wind was too high, and I was too tiny – because I was maybe 80 pounds. So when I went outside, the wind knocked me over, and I hit my head. I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. I could not acclimate. Who knew?” she said.

“But I loved Iceland. That was my first duty station, and I always chose the little places that I read about,” she said.

Triple-negative breast cancer

Sarah served almost 25 years in the Supply Corps before retiring in 2008.

Then, in July 2017, she was in the shower after spending Sunday working in the church garden and noticed a bump popping up out of her breast. She called her doctor on Monday, and by Tuesday, she was at Hollings, where a biopsy confirmed that it was triple-negative breast cancer.

At that point, it had been more than 40 years since Sarah’s mother had died, in 1974, of breast cancer.

Sarah distinctly remembers when her mother got sick. “She lasted four years, and she fought.” But she also remembers at one point telling her mother that it would be OK to let go. Treatments then, particularly in little country hospitals, were not what they are today, she notes.

Sarah’s mother died in the hospital, but Sarah didn’t get to see her one last time. The family had planned to take the children to the hospital on Wednesday, the designated visiting day for children, but Sarah’s mother died on Tuesday.

Fast forward to 2017, and she had been diagnosed with one of the types of breast cancer with fewer treatment options. Breast cancers are categorized according to whether they are “positive” or “negative” for certain types of receptors. Triple-negative breast cancer is negative for three things – estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and the HER2 protein. This means that drugs that have been developed to latch onto those receptors or the HER2 protein won’t work for triple-negative breast cancer, which also tends to be a more aggressive cancer.

For treatment, Sarah was on a regimen that included the notorious “Red Devil” doxorubicin – “I don’t call it the red devil. I call it the blood of Jesus. Don’t put no devil in me!” said Sarah with a laugh – followed by a mastectomy in February 2018 performed by Andrea Abbott, M.D.

All was well.

A year later, in 2019, she felt a squishy spot on her sternum. She went in to see her oncologist, Frank Brescia, M.D., and he and Abbott examined the area, then sent her for an ultrasound.

After the ultrasound, Sarah was getting antsy. Abbott told her they wanted to perform a biopsy, but Sarah was looking for an escape route. She just couldn’t sit there any longer by herself, waiting.

“I was trying to figure out how I could get out,” Sarah said. Then, Tiffany Williams, a cancer patient and advocate and member of the Cancer Ministry at Mount Moriah, appeared next to her.

“She said, ‘I understand what you’re going through.’ And she held my hand until it was time for me to go in,” Sarah said.

“That was on a Tuesday. Dr. Abbott called me on Thursday. She said, ‘Sarah, it is cancer. It is triple-negative again,’” Sarah said.

Because the cancer had recurred on her chest wall, it was now considered metastatic. Sarah was placed on a new regimen of drugs, and by that September, the visible lumps had disappeared.

Now under the care of Mariam Alexander, M.D., Ph.D., she regularly comes in for chemotherapy treatments to maintain her health. She feels lucky that the treatments don’t bother her. She doesn’t have nausea or other side effects, and she can maintain her busy schedule and physical activities. She has too much going on to be sick right now.

“I’ve got great nieces and nephews, and I take care of them. I told God when I was first diagnosed, ‘Lord, I don’t want to die. I’m going to miss my nieces because I’m always with them.’”