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Charmica Epps Harris: “On the Rise” Surviving and thriving at Massey

Jun 30, 2022

Charmica Epps hero image Charmica Epps Harris (center) is surviving and thriving with cancer.

At the age of 34, a diagnosis of stage III colorectal cancer was certainly not what Charmica Epps Harris expected. There is no history of cancer in her family and she eats well and stays active. She didn’t know anyone with cancer, especially not anyone her own age.

To “rule out” the possibility of cancer, Harris’ doctors ordered a colonoscopy, as they sought to explain some troubling symptoms. It was likely hemroids, they assumed.

Instead, the test confirmed a tumor in her colon and a diagnosis of stage III colorectal cancer.

It was early 2019 and Harris was busy planning a wedding, working full time in fundraising for Virginia State University and raising two daughters – at the time ages two and 12 with fiance, Daryl. If that wasn’t enough, she was also giving back through community service work at her church and as a board member of GRASP (GReater Aspiration Scholarship Program), a program which helps students navigate the college admission process and scholarship opportunities.

Harris was in denial at first, she said. “Nobody I knew had had cancer, none of my friends or family … I felt like I was this anomaly, especially with colon cancer at the age of 34.” 

Yet, while the majority of colorectal cancers appear in adults ages 50 and older, colon cancer among young people is not as rare as many think. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that 12% of new colorectal cancers will be diagnosed in individuals younger than age 50 this year.

“Cancer doesn’t have an age. It doesn’t have a race or a gender. Cancer doesn’t care what you’re busy doing … if you have a wedding coming up, if you have 2 kids …” - Charmica Epps Harris
Charmica Epps Charmica Epps Harris (center), husband Daryl and daughters on her wedding day in 2022.

Empowerment through advocacy

Harris’ diagnosis set her on a cancer journey that included surgery and twelve rounds of chemotherapy over the rest of that year. The treatments were hard and left her feeling worn out, she said. But, her experience also led to opportunities that were empowering and that enabled Harris to match her passion and purpose.

Part of Harris’ mission became using her story to advocate to and for others.

“I have always thought that my cancer journey was not just for myself. It was for me to advocate and for me to share and empower others.” 

And that’s just what she did.

Within a few weeks of her diagnosis, Harris was running the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10K to fundraise for Massey through the Massey Challenge.

She shared her story on social media, reaching those both in and outside of her networks. Her biggest message: “Listen to your body and advocate for yourself. Screenings are key.”

Many folks, including people she didn’t even know, reached out to thank her for sharing her story or to ask her questions about her symptoms and what they should look out for.

Charmica at Massey Challenge Charmica Epps Harris (center) at the Massey Challenge and Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10K in 2019 shortly after her diagnosis.

The Colon Club: “On the Rise”

Telling her story also expanded Harris’ own network of support.

Last month, Harris joined 11 other colorectal cancer survivors and warriors at a retreat on an estate outside Nashville, TN. It was hosted by The Colon Club, an organization founded 20 years ago by a colorectal cancer survivor to raise awareness about colorectal cancer and, particularly, its impact on individuals under the age of 45. Harris, along with 11 other survivors, had been nominated and selected as part of the Colon Club’s annual “On the Rise” publication for the Class of 2023. The diverse group was selected to continue the club's efforts to grow the number of advocates raising awareness.

At the retreat, which is affectionately known as Colon Camp, they were able to enjoy time away together “in a no judgment zone” to share their stories and to grow their advocacy. They were given shirts emboldened with the word “HOPE.”

The group – ranging in age from early 30s to mid-40s and representing states from coast-to-coast – also included one caregiver and the widow of one of their fellow honorees. Together they shared the physical scars associated with colorectal cancer at a photo shoot for the annual “On the Rise” publication that is produced each March.

“The scars and the wounds of colon cancer, we see as the shining stars of our survivorship.” - Charmica Epps Harris

“Colon cancer has taken quite a few things away from me,” Harris said. “But I’ve also gained a lot through this journey.”

At the retreat, the group hiked, paddle boarded, sang karaoke and ate well, thanks to a dedicated chef and a team of folks who took care of their every need, and they all found time to relax. The group ranged in cancer stages, from stage 1 to stage 4, with some still in active treatment.

Charmica at colon camp Charmica Epps Harris at “Colon Camp” in 2022.

“This experience created bonds that will forever be intact. It has become a community of support.”

“It also left us feeling empowered. We were filled by the experience. And now our mission is to go out to advocate for others.“

Thriving and Surviving at Massey

Being a cancer survivor doesn’t stop when treatment does. Two years post-diagnosis, Harris maintains a cancer care regimen, as a Survivorship patient at Massey, under the watchful eye of Susan Hong, M.D., director of newly created Survivorship Program. She is a vocal advocate for the innovative work in survivorship that is a hallmark of Massey’s cancer care.

Harris also took a new job in 2021, joining the Massey team as director of annual giving. Building on 12 years of work experience in higher education fundraising, it was a professional move that Harris sees as a confluence of her passion with her purpose. This summer, she will assume a new role managing the Massey Advisory Board and hospital relations. “Working at Massey allowed me to expand my fundraising and advocacy work,” she said. “By sharing a common thread with so many of our donors and being around amazing doctors doing amazing work, not just for my own cancer but for other cancers – I am saving lives.

“It’s good to be in a place where you can say, ‘You are not alone … And now, let’s talk about the great work that’s going on here at Massey.”

Charmica at WW Charmica Epps Harris (2nd from right) at the VCU Massey Cancer Center’s 2022 Women and Wellness Educational Conference event in March 2022.

Asked what a future without cancer – or without the burdens of cancer – would mean to her, Harris points to hope. “I’m hopeful that my children will never have to experience this. But if they do, the work that we are doing at Massey will put them in a better place.”

Harris’s doctors gave her hope when she was diagnosed and continue to give her hope for a future where she can thrive, not just survive, cancer. Her work at Massey has given her an opportunity to match her passion and purpose. And the bonds of friendship she made through The Colon Club continue to fuel her voice and the power to expand her advocacy work.

These experiences, in addition to her faith, have given her strength, she says. “I’ve always been one to want to overcome. This is just another thing I have to overcome.”

“Cancer is not the end. It is just one chapter in the book.”
Charmica at colon club Charmica Epps Harris (2nd from left) with other 2023 Colon Club “On the Rise” class members.

In December 2021, Harris celebrated two years since her cancer diagnosis. Her next “No Evidence of Disease” (NED) milestone is five years. She’s looking forward to – and well beyond – that.

“Cancer is not the end. It is just a chapter in the book,” she says.  “This is just an opportunity to breathe through this chapter, and go on with all the things that make life beautiful.”

Massey’s Survivorship program

Learn more about The Colon Club

Make a donation to Massey to support cancer research - Donations may be made in honor or memory of a loved one.

Written by: Katherine A. Layton

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