Portia’s Story: Cancer Survivor Finds Way to Give Back

I recently had the opportunity to interview our new volunteer in the Omaha office, Portia Harrell. During Portia’s interview for the position, Pam asked her without knowing she had cancer,  “Why do you think you would be good for this position?”. Portia responded with, “Because I want to be around something that I have gone through and I think that I can help others in the same situation as me.” Two days later Portia found out she got the position. This is Portia Harrell’s story.

Portia noticed a small lump on her chest in March 2008. She went to her family doctor who prescribed her something to take for the swelling to go down, but after taking the medicine the lump only got bigger. Without insurance an MRI was not possible so she tried to apply for an insurance help program and after being denied twice she left it at that.  

Portia's Story Pic.JPGJanuary 16, 2009 changed Portia Harrell’s life forever. Just 22 years old Portia was diagnosed with stage two
Nodular Sclerosing Type Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  Nodular Sclerosing Type Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a genetic cancer only among siblings. Portia’s older brother was also diagnosed with the same cancer back in 2006. 

In the early hours of the morning on January 16, Portia was brought to the hospital after getting into a car accident. Instead of finding any broken bones, the doctors found cancer. The lump on her chest was in fact cancer and not just a bump like her family doctor thought it was all along.

 “I was in complete shock and my heart broken when the doctors said those three words ‘You have cancer,'” Harrell said with tears in her eyes. “I am only 22 years old, how could this happen to me?” 

After more tests were done, the doctors then filled Portia’s ears with tons of options to treat her type of cancer. The decision was made to start with 13 cycles of chemotherapy. She then spent 25 days in the hospital and in that time she began to fall in love with the nursing staff.

“The nurses at Creighton University Hospital really helped me through all my treatments even when it made me so sick I wanted to give up,” Harrell told me. “They even called me Princess Portia.”

Portia went to chemotherapy every other Thursday starting less than a week after her diagnosis. Each chemotherapy session lasted four hours. With Chemotherapy comes hair loss, yet another downside to finding out you have cancer. After the first chemo treatment Portia’s hair began to fall out strand after strand. Fearing that everyone would know she had cancer Portia set out to find a wig.

She did some research on her own and found that the American Cancer Society had free wigs for cancer patients. Not wanting to go to the American Cancer Society, she went to a local wig shop.  Most people do not know how expensive a wig can be and neither did I until I met Portia. The first wigs Portia looked at started at $150. These wigs are ones you cannot style or wash so what’s the point of spending that much money on something you can only wear a few times. The lady working then directed Portia back to the American Cancer Society. It was fate. She got her first wig from the very office she now works in.

“I wore that wig a long time actually,” Harrell told me. “It was synthetic hair so it stays shiny, I needed something I could switch up.”

                Prior to Portia’s diagnosis she attended cosmetology school at LaRose Beauty Academy so she was very familiar with working with hair. She decided to make her own wigs. For her this became a hobby. She has made about 40 wigs since she started chemotherapy in January.  

“I’ve learn to put my hair on without looking in the mirror. If I see myself without hair it will ruin my entire day,” Harrell told me, “even if its messed up, I will fix it once I have it on.”

Even though Portia found a way to keep her mind off the fact she has cancer, she still faces many struggles each day.

Fighting back the tears once again Portia tells me, “The doctors said I will never be able to have kids because of all the chemotherapy I’ve had to do. I am only 22 years old and I feel as if my life stopped and started going in slow motion when I found out I had cancer.”

Portia completed her last cycle of chemotherapy on July 9, 2009. Now Portia must wait until the chemo runs its course. Then she will go through a series of tests to see if more treatment is necessary. In the meantime she will be trying to help others dealing with the same stuff while working for the American Cancer Society.

“I was very excited to have made it all the way through chemo.  I tried everything to get out of it. I have my mother to thank. She is the one that stuck by me more than anyone else.  She was there through all the nights I couldn’t sleep, through all the crying and all the pain. I love my mom,” Harrell said with a smile on her face.

To find out more about the American Cancer Society’s patient services offered in your community, call 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1.800.227.2345.


by Amanda Jones, ACS Communications Intern