In October of 2006, Geri Harkins and a friend decided to schedule appointments to get their bunions removed. Geri’s podiatrist ordered a chest x-ray as part of a pre-op evaluation for the bunionectomy.
During her next routine appointment with her general practitioner, Dr. Charles Taylor sent Geri for this chest x-ray. It was then that he noticed a spot on Geri’s lung. Dr. Taylor scheduled a CT scan at Northside Hospital Atlanta, where Geri met with pulmonary specialist Dr. Robert Albin. Dr. Albin said the spot should be tested for lung cancer and referred Geri to Dr. John Moore, a thoracic surgeon who also practiced at Northside.
In December 2006, Geri was diagnosed with stage 1A non-small cell lung cancer. Geri was 62, just four years younger than her father when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live. Geri had smoked before but quit years earlier. Although Geri’s family had multiple cancers, her diagnosis was never confirmed as hereditary. Instead, it was a miracle that Geri’s cancer was caught this early at all.
“If my podiatrist hadn’t sent me to get a chest x-ray, I might not be here today,” Geri said.
Early January 2007 Geri underwent surgery to remove the upper right lobe of her lung. She then took six weeks off work and, with her oxygen tank in hand, set out on a personal rehab goal of walking the 4-mile distance to the end of her neighborhood and back. After weeks of small trips around the cul-de-sac, she finally met her goal, several months post-surgery. Geri has been healthy for many years, returning to Northside for regular checkups.
In 2014, Geri and her husband Tom were on an Alaskan cruise with family when Tom began noticing signs of what he thought was bronchitis. Once back home, Tom went for a chest x-ray and CT, calling on the same medical team Geri had used years earlier. Dr. Albin found spots on his lower right lobe and esophagus. In October, Dr. Moore performed surgery to remove Tom’s lower lobe, but the cancer had already spread. Despite never being a smoker nor familial history of lung cancer either, Tom was diagnosed with 3B non-small cell lung cancer. Geri left her job to focus on caring for her husband. Tom underwent chemo and radiation through July before oncologist Dr. Carlos Franco recommended he start with a new FDA-approved drug. For over four years Tom has been on the drug and he’s back to full health.
“He’s a miracle walking,” Geri said. “Since starting the drug, he can’t hold back. He’s traveled all over the world.”
During one of Geri’s follow-ups with Dr. Moore in January 2017, he found something suspicious on her right lower lobe and sent for a biopsy. On Geri’s 73rd birthday, March 17, 2017, Dr. Moore called to tell her she had a new cancer developing in her lung – a squamous 1A. Processing the news, Geri never doubted her team at Northside to bring her back to health a second time.
“I trust God, and I trust Dr. Moore, and I don’t worry about it,” she said.
Geri underwent four rounds of radiation treatments and visited Northside weekly in May and June for treatment from Dr. W. Hamilton Williams of radiation oncology. Today, Geri continues to visit Northside every three months for chest x-rays and every six months for CT scans. Geri encourages her friends to get regular screenings too.
“People need to do chest screening just like they do breast and prostate screenings,” she said. “You never know what might be there, so you have to do it for your health.”
Tom and Geri don’t let their battles with cancer define them, and they encourage others to think this way too. The couple keeps busy with social activities, taking care of their family and traveling the world together.
“You can’t stop living. You have to keep going," Geri says. "Tom always says, ‘everything you want to see is on a hill and you have to climb that hill to reach it, so get going,’ and he’s right. You have to be positive and live for today."
*The health story shared here may portray atypical results of survival for this type of cancer, given its severity and stage. Atypical results are considered surviving a cancer that has less than a 50 percent five-year survival rate. Patients should consult an expert to discuss specific treatment plans and the possible outcomes before making medical decisions.