“I think Karmanos’ doctors did a great job helping me navigate through it.”
Everyone’s cancer journey is different, but many who have fought their battles will say that hearing “You have cancer” is the hardest part.
For Elizabeth Harpster, those words were the start of navigating treatment, recovery, survival, and thriving so she could help others who find themselves in the battle against cancer.
“I think the doctors at Karmanos did a great job helping me navigate through it,” Harpist said. “They were always just one step ahead and explained, ‘Elizabeth, next week you might feel that way, and you might not.’ At least I knew what was happening and how I should or should not react to what I was experiencing.”
That open and honest communication Harpist described helped her face her diagnosis and treatment with courage and a positive attitude.
Knowledge gave Elizabeth the strength to move on
Before her diagnosis and treatment began in early 2020, Harpster was a busy wife and mother of teenage twins. She traveled constantly for work. But one day she developed symptoms of a sore throat and swollen glands that didn’t improve, so she went to see her doctor. That was in December 2019.
“I was told, ‘Oh, Elizabeth, take this antibiotic and a Z-pack, and you’ll feel better.’ Of course I felt better because a Z-pack always makes you feel better, but a week or two later I still didn’t feel right,” Harpist explained.
In January 2020, during her son’s snowboarding competition, Harpster remarked to a friend that she had to go home early. Her fatigue, swollen glands, headache and sore throat got the better of her. Harpist’s friend asked to see her neck.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to scare you, but I just want to tell you that my husband had neck cancer caused by HPV. I think you really need to get this checked out,” Harpist recalled.
So that’s what she did. She saw an otorhinolaryngologist (ENT) who ordered a CAT scan.
“The next day he called me and said, ‘You have thyroid cancer.’ That was terrible to hear,” she says. “Then he sent me to an endocrinologist who did some thyroid tests, and he came back and said, ‘Elizabeth, you don’t have thyroid cancer.'”
Neither doctor could confirm a diagnosis, but the endocrinologist did refer her to have her lymph nodes removed and tested.
“In the meantime, I went to see a holistic doctor that I had seen off and on all my life because I just love holistic doctors,” explains Harpster. “He put me on all these tinctures – ‘just take this little drop of whatever and put it in an herbal tea and drink it three times a day.'”
Harpist followed the orders of the holistic doctors until COVID-19 changed life as she and the rest of the world knew it.
“With the closure of the pandemic, you couldn’t even come in for a procedure. You couldn’t even go to the doctor. I got leave from work because I traveled all the time, so I sat at home for six weeks and played board games with my kids and my husband, and I drank this tea with green tincture and slept and ate well. I felt fantastic! I checked the swelling in my neck every day and it went down. I felt fine.”
Harpist decided she had just suffered from a case of mono. In May 2020, as Harpster was planning to return to everyday life, she received a call from the surgeon she had been referred to earlier this year for the removal of her lymph nodes. That call would set her on a journey she was not prepared for.
“She said I had been on her roll before closing and she didn’t want me to fall through the cracks.”
Harpist saw the surgeon, who encouraged her to have an ultrasound of her neck, despite the swelling being gone. She was back to work and her busy travel schedule, but her symptoms of fatigue and just not feeling well returned. She got the ultrasound as advised.
“The doctor said, ‘The swelling may have gone down, but the ultrasound tells a different story. You need to have the lymph node removed,'” Harpist said. “So I went and had it removed, and days later I found out I had cancer .”
It was the day before her twins turned 16.
Care and support at Karmanos made the difference
Harpster was referred to the Karmanos Cancer Institute, where she was placed under the care of three members of the Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) for head and neck oncology: Ammar Sukari, MD, medical oncologist and leader of the MDT, Harold Kim, MD, radiation oncologist, and Jeffrey Hotaling, MD, FACS, otolaryngologist and surgical oncologist.
“When Elisabeth’s lymph node was removed, tests revealed she had squamous cell carcinoma,” explains Dr Hotaling. “Since the diagnosis came from the lymph node, this cancer usually originates somewhere in the mouth or throat. When she handed over her care to Karmanos, she had what was called an “unknown primary tumor,” meaning it was unclear where the tumor came from that had spread to the lymph node in her neck. We then did a robotic tonsillectomy and I was able to determine that she had a small tumor in her tonsil.
Dr. Hotaling learned that Harpster had HPV-associated squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is associated with several cancers, including tonsil cancer, cancer of the base of the tongue, and some gynecologic cancers.
Almost everyone will be exposed to HPV at least once in their lifetime because the virus is spread through direct contact. The body’s immune system can usually fight the virus within two years, but if the virus persists for more than two years, it can lead to cancer. Throat (oropharyngeal) cancer, which also includes cancer of the tonsils and base of the tongue, is the most common HPV-related cancer diagnosis in the US.
“The type of cancer Elizabeth had isn’t particularly common, but most of the tonsil cancers we see are related to HPV,” Dr. Hotaling. “HPV is known to cause oropharyngeal cancers, but only a small percentage of HPV infection in humans progresses to throat cancer. Unfortunately, we don’t have all the information to know why someone does or doesn’t develop HPV-related cancer if they are infected with the HPV virus.”
Harpster said knowing the origins helped create a clear treatment plan, which included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
“I like to tell patients that we are a one stop shop at Karmanos,” Dr. Hotaling. “You walk in and everything is arranged in-house. We have a huge team of specialists who only treat head and neck cancer. There is no need to send a patient to another health system, which makes things much easier for patients.
“My colleagues, drs. Sukari, Kim and I have drawn up a treatment plan together with Elizabeth. We all worked closely together and were on the same wavelength during her care.”
Harpster said the cooperation and care of her entire team helped her keep going.
“I remember during my first chemo visit, two of the nurses told me they had dogs, and the second time I went for treatment, I brought them treats for their dogs. Having those relationships and doing things like that for them made me feel human.
Harpster’s cancer battle was physically, emotionally and financially challenging. She had to quit her job, which had a huge impact on her family. Harpist stayed strong with her husband, Reid, by her side and her twins, who bravely faced their freshman year of high school while their mother underwent cancer treatment. She also had to figure out how to navigate others in her life – some didn’t understand what she was going through. Still, she said Dr. Hotaling and the Karmanos team helped fill the gaps with the support she needed.
Pay in advance for other cancer patients
As Harpster found ways to stay involved in life and make things normal for her family during her recovery, she discovered Karmano’s music and art therapy sessions. The integrative therapy groups were conducted virtually during that time as the COVID-19 pandemic continued.
“I was on Pinterest and saw these birdseed wreaths, and I thought this could be fun to make. It was hard at first because combining all the birdseeds, flours and all the ingredients made me really tired, but I would day making a wreath I have made it part of my daily routine for strength and recovery.
Dr. Hotaling and Elizabeth
Elizabeth and Dr Sukari
Elizabeth and Dr. Kim
Harpist said a friend’s visit and admiration for the wreaths inspired her. She decided to put together and deliver birdseed wreath kits for other Karmanos patients, and she taught a virtual art therapy class herself. At her friend’s urging, Harpster even began selling her birdseed wreaths at local craft shows and art fairs.
“I sit down with my patients and tell them that our goal is to get them to eat, drink, talk and live again. We just want this to be a bump in the road and get them back to doing what they want. It [cancer] will change their lives, but we don’t want it to completely take over their lives.
“In Elizabeth’s case, we were able to do that. And she’s doing great,” concluded Dr. Hotaling.
Although Harpster is back to work full-time, she doesn’t lose sight of her dedication to inspiring others battling cancer.
“The beauty of this journey is that there will be unexpected joy along the way if you fight with courage and positivity,” Harpist said. “Get involved in your treatment and talk to your doctors. Take art therapy classes and thank your nurses. That’s the hope and positivity I want to share by telling my story. I hope to make a difference in someone else’s journey by sharing.”
Karmanos offers supportive and educational services, including support groups and integrative therapies, such as art therapy, yoga, massage therapy, and more. Click here for more information about our programs.
Click here to learn more about HPV-related cancers.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with head and neck cancer, it’s important to see a specialist who has devoted their career to researching and treating the disease. Call 1-800-KARMANOS to schedule an appointment with one of our experts.