The advice that Creola Harris of Winston-Salem offers anyone within earshot comes from a spirit she sums up in two words.
On Sept. 14, 2021, when Dr. Kathleen Elliott told Harris she had a type of incurable but treatable bone marrow cancer called multiple myeloma, there was no hesitation.
“Oh. OK,” Harris said to Elliott, an oncologist and hematologist (blood system and related diseases) at Novant Health Cancer Institute - Forsyth. “What do we do from here?”
Told that she would undergo chemotherapy, again Harris did not hesitate.
“Are we doing it today?” she asked.
Chemo didn’t come that fast. But it came. So did a stem cell transplant, three bone marrow biopsies, X-rays and numerous consultations with her medical team. Harris, a retired parole officer and prison guard faced it all by following her own advice. She kept moving.
Every cancer journey is different.
When she rang the bell on Aug. 28 to signal the start of Blood Cancer Awareness Month, she says she rang it “for everyone that’s been through, going through or will go through cancer in life.” Such was her joy, she jogged in place, the back of her maroon shirt declaring “THE BLOOD STILL WORKS.”
In a sense, Harris, 60, is still ringing that bell. Only now she’s put that sweet sound into the words of a battle cry she shares with others. Never give up no matter what you might face. Trust in a higher power if you are so inspired. Find the strength to prevail. If you must deal with cancer or another illness, trust the doctors, nurses and others who care for you. When your journey is done, help the next person navigating that same road.
Harris intends to write a book. She’s already picked out the title.
“Keep moving” of course.
‘The spirit of hope and resilience’
Harris wants to make one thing perfectly clear before we go any further. “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey.”
Harris was stunned but not overcome the day that Elliott told her she had cancer. Though she had no symptoms, bloodwork revealed an elevated protein level and confirmed the diagnosis. In multiple myeloma, cancerous plasma cells build up in bone marrow, crowding out healthy blood cells.
“I asked God at the beginning of this thing to give me the endurance, the motivation to fight,” she said.
She brought a fiery optimism to every procedure, from chemo to a stem cell transplant on Jan. 7, 2022. A stem cell transplant infuses healthy blood-forming stem cells into the body to replace bone marrow that's not producing enough healthy blood cells.
Throughout treatment, even today, she takes yoga three days a week through Novant Health. She attends Novant Health wellness classes five days a week, walking the track and treadmill. She draws strength from the fellowship of Novant Health’s multiple myeloma monthly support group. Last October, she joined in the “Light The Night” walk in Greensboro to support the work of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The organization gave her encouragement and financial support. She plans to join the next walk on Oct. 7 in Greensboro.
When she began to suffer from neuropathy (nerve damage that can cause numbness and pain), she told Elliott, “Give me something for these feet, I gotta keep moving.” Acupuncture and medicine help. She continues on maintenance chemotherapy.
Wary of infections, she wears a mask and avoid crowds. When she speed-walks, sometimes 8 or 9 miles, she listens to gospel music. “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” is a favorite.
Harris asked if this article could list by name every individual who helped her. Expressing gratitude means everything to her. Though there are too many members of the Novant Health team to cite here, she made do with one giant “Thank you.”
At the bell-ringing ceremony, Harris and Elliott shared a long embrace. Elliott, who sees Harris monthly, has come to appreciate that there is more to her recovery than medicine.
“She is an extraordinary patient whose positivity and faith made a lasting impression not just on me but on everyone involved in her care,” Elliott said. “Her commitment to staying active and positive during her treatment journey was inspiring. She’d always bring a small journal to jot down notes, inspirational quotes or thoughts that she’d later share with other patients. She truly embodied the spirit of hope and resilience.”
‘Is this the life you want?’
Harris’ story goes beyond cancer.
She spent 30 years in law enforcement before retiring in 2018. Her experiences working as a probation officer and, before that, in the women’s prison in Raleigh, are embedded in her heart. What she encountered is too chilling to share here. But rather than surrender to the darkness, Harris responded by posing questions to offenders and ex-cons.
“Is this the life you want? Is this the life you can fall in love with? What do you want for yourself?”
This is her calling, she says, to talk about her journey. To turn hopelessness to hope. To challenge those who can’t see over the mountain, whatever the mountain might be. To share the two words she believes captures the essence of life.
And by this point, you know what they are…