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Sharing story is survivor's mission



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June 09, 2010
IMLAY CITY — Cancer "came out of nowhere" for Ellen Harbin. The wife and mother of four had been given a clean bill of health last fall but a mere two weeks later she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of uterine cancer.

Needless to say, participating in this weekend's Relay for Life will take on a new meaning for Ellen. She's walked in the 24 hour American Cancer Society fundraiser before but her perspective on life, cancer and community is forever altered.

• • •

It was November 2009. Ellen and her husband, Imlay City United Methodist Church Pastor Kevin Harbin, had spent the last several months preparing to become adoptive parents. They had four kids of their own—Christine, Andrew, Eric and Troy—but the couple was excited at the prospect of opening their home to kids in need. As part of their home studies, Kevin and Ellen had to undergo physical exams.

"I had two doctors tell me that I was the picture of health," Ellen recalls.

"Two weeks later that all fell apart."

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Kevin and Ellen Harbin were in the process of becoming adoptive parents last fall when Ellen was diagnosed with uterine cancer.

Ellen was diagnosed with Stage 2 uterine cancer. The cancerous cells in her body were given a grade 3—the most high risk and aggressive type of cells to exist.

Ellen had a complete hysterectomy. Because of the viciousness of the cells, she was also advised to follow that up with three rounds of chemotherapy and high-dose radiation.

"I received in five treatments what someone else would have had in six weeks," Ellen said of the radiation.

Her treatment is complete but she visits her oncologist in Saginaw every three months. The hope, she says, is that nothing shows up on future CAT scans.

It's a lot to absorb in only six month's time but Ellen credits her faith and the outpouring of love and support from her family, friends and community for making it all bearable.

"My faith in Jesus has been an unbelievable source of encouragement and strength for me," she said.

The words of Psalm 16:5—"Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup"—became her cancer motto of sorts. When it came time to have her head shaved, Ellen's stylist carved the numbers 16:5 out of what hair remained.

"I'm on assignment. We're all on assignment," Ellen said.

"None of us are free from trials, this just happens to be mine. I want to be a source of encouragement for others and be able to share my story."

She said she also drew strength from the love and care that her church family, friends and even strangers showed during those difficult months.

"I loved the people who had the guts to say 'you look good' or 'I'm praying for you. They weren't afraid to talk about the 'elephant in the room,'" Ellen said.

She does admit she had a harder time accepting 'real' help, at first. Independence is a virtue that's hard to let go of, Ellen says. Cancer taught her it's okay to be dependent on others.

"I realized there were times when I had to say 'yes, please bring some food over' or 'my husband needs these shirts ironed'...things that sometimes seem so insignificant, "she recalls.

Walking in her first Relay for Life as a survivor, Ellen is looking forward to seeing the small-scale support web she experienced during her cancer fight magnified on a larger, community scale. She's walking on the United Methodist Church Relay team.

"I'm very excited about the Relay and what the American Cancer Society does to bring together family, friends, churches and the community," she said.

"It's a time to drop our preconceived notions about people. Everyone's on the same page."

Maria Brown joined the Tri-City Times staff in 2003, the same year she earned a bachelor's degree in English from Calvin College. Born and raised in Imlay City, she now resides north of Capac where she enjoys working on the farm, gardening and reading.
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