It was wintertime and Laurie Harrison had a cold she just couldn't shake.
She was 28 years old, married for only two years and working as a physical therapist. The chilly, arid weather aggravated Harrison’s ongoing issues with her sinuses as well as a nagging cough.
But she went to the doctor after her neck swelled up. He referred her to an endocrinologist, who did chest X-rays and an ultrasound.
"They found a tumor in my chest," said Harrison, who now lives in Long Grove with her husband and their four children. It was a mediastinal mass and a node above her left collarbone that measured more than one-third of the thoracic area. She went through six months of cancer treatments for Hodgkin's lymphoma.
The cancer was diagnosed in 1997, so she's now a long-term (16-year) survivor of cancer whose children include identical twin girls.
Upbeat and cheerful, Harrison has a ready laugh. "I was young, vibrant and newly married," she said from the comfortable kitchen of her home, just blocks from Alan Shepard Elementary School.
"No one expected it to be cancer," added Harrison, who has been chosen as the honorary survivor for the 2013 Scott County Relay for Life event taking place April 27.
to career choice
Harrison, 44, is a 1987 graduate of Bettendorf High School. Her parents still live in Bettendorf. She graduated from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, in 1991, knowing she wanted to be a physical therapist. Her grandmother, she explained, lost both legs below the knees due to complications from diabetes, but underwent physical therapy and had a full life, walking with the help of canes.
"She did very well, and that's when I was sure about what I wanted to do," Harrison added.
Laurie (Owen) and Matt Harrison met in 1989, while both were in college, at an Easter Seals camp near Ankeny, Iowa. Matt, now a teacher in the North Scott School District, was attending Iowa State University, so the couple had a long-distance relationship before they married in 1994.
She went on to get her advanced physical therapy degree at the University of Osteopathic Medicine and Health Sciences, now known as Des Moines University. After working for a year in Mason City, Iowa, she got a job in the physical therapy department with Genesis Health System in Davenport, where she has continued her career.
Her treatment for cancer lasted about six months. Harrison has a supportive family. (Besides her parents, she has a twin sister.) The family took turns taking her to chemotherapy and radiation appointments. She also received support from her Genesis physical therapy colleagues, with people signing up to take turns bringing food to the young couple, providing dinners for two or three days each week.
The congregation at Bettendorf Presbyterian Church also helped the Harrisons during their cancer battle, and the couple grew to be friends with Tracy Kimler, an X-ray technologist in Bettendorf who nominated Laurie for the honorary survivor position.
Harrison is glad the treatment was effective and hopes never to repeat the experience. "Fortunately, I had been healthy before all of that happened. I'm glad I didn't need any more treatment than I had!" she said.
In fact, Harrison got extremely ill during her final cancer treatment and didn't feel like herself again for about two years.
Got the OK
to have kids
Finally healthy, Harrison received her doctor's approval to have children. Cooper was born in 2001 and is now 12 years old. Brock, 9, was born in 2004, and her twin daughters, Hope and Abby, arrived in 2005.
"I've been able to watch Laurie grow up," said Kimler, who lives in Bettendorf. "She got the OK to have children and now she has four. It's an absolute miracle."
Harrison got involved with Relay for Life in 2004. Her faith community has sponsored a team for years. At first, she walked while she was pregnant and was still going to an oncologist every six months.
"I was friends with the doctor and she wanted to see the new baby," she explained.
The physical therapist believes the money raised by Relay for Life must go to cancer research to result in better treatments. Thirty years ago, she pointed out, not much was available in the way of treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma, and gains over the years have made it possible for people such as her to both survive and flourish.
"I think she is a helpful example to others," Kimler said, pointing to Harrison's many years as a survivor and her big, healthy family.
Kimler added that Relay for Life is a wonderful way to remember those people who are still battling cancer as well as those who have lost the battle.
"It's just a good community event," Harrison agreed. "Many people go through the same kind of experience.
"I get emotional every year at the Relay for Life event. I feel blessed that I'm still OK and thankful for the support of all the people."