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On being thankful ...

Cancer patient: 'People and relationships are more precious than anyone knows'

Cancer patient: 'People and relationships are more precious than anyone knows'

November 21, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

WILLIAMSPORT - A year ago, Carolyn Harbaugh was told that she had two years to live.

Doctors found a cancerous mass the size of a baseball in her stomach and later told her that a rare and malignant cancer called leiomyosarcoma (LMS) had invaded the smooth muscle in her body.

The cancer spread and her life expectancy reduced, suddenly.

"When that happened, I thought, 'I'm not going to just sit around,'" said Harbaugh, 50, of Williamsport. "I'm going to be happy."

Now, as Thanksgiving approaches, Harbaugh and her family are encouraging other families to give more thought to what it really means to be thankful and to live every day to the fullest.

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Lately, Harbaugh has been undergoing rounds of chemotherapy, in an effort to fight LMS.

"The outlook I have, it's amazing," Harbaugh said. "People and relationships are more precious than anyone knows."

As a cancer, LMS is classified a malignant soft-tissue sarcoma, a harmful tumor that develops in body tissues such as fat, muscle, nerves and blood vessels.

People who are diagnosed within five years of the inception of a soft-tissue sarcoma have a 50-percent survival rate, according to figures provided by Dawn Ward, communications and marketing director for the American Cancer Society's South Atlantic Division.

"It's not something that's mainstream," Ward said.

Soft-tissue sarcomas, Ward said, will make up fewer than 1 percent of the American Cancer Society's estimated 1.5 million cancer diagnoses in the United States for 2009.

"She's probably the bravest person I know," said Calvin Harbaugh, 61, her husband who is a cancer survivor.

They have been married for 12 years. "I wish I met her 30 years ago," he said.

Carolyn Harbaugh is the third of eight children - all but one of them girls. The family grew up on a farm in central Pennsylvania. Her mother, Carolyn McMath, 69, lives in Bellefonte, Pa., and has leukemia.

"We both had our hair loss at the same time," Harbaugh said, laughing.

Calvin said he met his wife at his job in Gaithersburg, Md., 13 years ago. She was doing fiber-optics work on a fire-alarm system at his workplace.

"It was love at first sight," Calvin said, adding that Carolyn's sense of humor won him over.

They don't have any children together but have five grown children from prior marriages. Carolyn said the children have been helpful, doing research for her online and providing a supportive environment.

She said some of her grandkids are too young to understand what is going on, though they know "grandma's sick."

"They're so small now," Carolyn Harbaugh said. "I wonder if they'll be able to remember me."

But living every day as fully as you can are words Carolyn Harbaugh seems to live by. When she spoke there were more bouts of laughter and few bouts of tears.

"It's strange to say, but I feel spiritually uplifted," she said.

Though the diagnosis has forced her to give up her day-care business, Harbaugh nurtures her other interests. She's an avid crocheter - a skill her mother taught her at age 7. She does light gardening, with pink impatiens, ferns and sweet potato vines.

"I just live every day as full as I can," Harbaugh said.

So what does Harbaugh want people to take away from her story?

"That there's a cancer called leiomyosarcoma," Harbaugh said, "and to be aware that there's no cure at all."

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