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Life changed in an instant for Erie native Philip Harris Jr. in April.
After a visit to the family doctor, he was rushed to West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh where he found out he had cancer.
The diagnosis was acute myeloid leukemia, a rare cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Harris, 24, said he told his doctor that cancer picked the wrong person.
Sometime during the spring, Harris felt a sudden lack of energy. He found himself out of breath doing simple tasks, even getting out of bed, and he was tiring quicker than usual while he worked as a cook at Coach’s Bar and Grill.
While bowling at his home lanes, Greengarden Lanes, the 2015 Central Tech graduate had to sit down and catch his breath after shots.
“I felt like my heart was beating out of my chest,” he said. “I could walk only three inches. I couldn’t breathe.”
‘I never thought …’
Harris’ initial thoughts about his symptoms never approached cancer. He wondered if he had caught COVID-19 or was having trouble with a previous infection.
At the time, Harris was also taking antibiotics, so he thought the medication might have been the cause of his symptoms. He visited the family doctor to see if this was the case.
After a number of blood tests, he was soon in the back of an ambulance headed to Pittsburgh, receiving blood and platelet transfusions the entire ride there.
“I never thought it would be cancer,” he said. “I never thought it would be leukemia. I just figured my numbers were down (in my blood) and it would get fixed.”
That day, Friday, April 16, was the first time Harris heard the word “leukemia” among his potential diagnoses. He waited out the weekend before labs at the hospital opened up to confirm he indeed had AML.
Help from his brother
“I looked right at the doctor,” he said. “I told him, ‘We’re going to fight it. We’re going to beat it. I’m a strong, young kid. My health is normally good.’
“I was just fine at the time. I was getting ready to play slow-pitch softball and then everything hit the fan in one day.”
Harris immediately began chemotherapy and radiation treatments, beginning with a 40-day stint at West Penn. While there, doctors placed him on a stem cell donor list. Two perfect matches were found.
However, his 16-year-old brother, Elijah, was also tested for a match and was found to be a healthy donor just before Harris’ 40-day stay ended.
“It’s definitely a blessing he was a match,” Harris said. “Everything happened so fast and so quick. My brother has a lot to play in this, too. If it wasn’t for him, I may not be here today. He said, right from the start, ‘Whatever I need to do, I’ll do.'”
After a short visit in Erie, Harris headed back to West Penn for another 35 days before coming back to Erie once again with intentions of getting his life back to normalcy.
Harris said the second round of inpatient treatments was much stronger, and much more intense on his body, than the first. He said his primary visitors were his mother and his new girlfriend, Camryn, whom he had just begun dating before learning his diagnosis.
As someone who tends to ignore any type of illness or symptoms, Harris believes he is an example for others his age who might be just as stubborn. His girlfriend finally convinced him to see a doctor.
“I didn’t say anything about being sick,” he said. “I didn’t want to worry anybody. I was still going to work.”
His experience has changed his thoughts about getting examined by a doctor now. He said he would urge anyone experiencing adverse symptoms to get checked.
“I used to be that way,” he said. “I would think, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal.’ I’m not like that anymore.”
His bowling family
Harris is a proud member of the Erie community. As a bowler, he is well known at Greengarden Lanes, which hosted a benefit in his honor. He has been active in the sport since the age of 5.
Harris is also active on the local sports scene as a member of the Otters’ and SeaWolves’ promotion teams.
Determined to get his life back to normal, Harris recently made a surprise return to Greengarden Lanes. His friend, Kirt Johnson, was in on the secret.
“I was able to keep my mouth shut,” Johnson said. “When Philip walked into Greengarden and people saw him, the electricity in the place was insane.”
Harris’ fellow bowlers have gone out of their way to make sure he can have a safe and comfortable experience at the bowling facility. He and Johnson actually met at the lanes and have fostered a friendship over the past 10 years.
“We’d do whatever we could to make sure Phil is taken care of,” Johnson said. “He reminds us a lot of ourselves when we were that age.”
Harris has undergone an obvious physical transformation. Treatments have thinned his hair. He has lost weight. His skin complexion has changed.
However, his bowling acumen has remained.
“It’s fun to see him come back and still be the consistent ball thrower that he is and the same consistent spare thrower that he is,” Johnson said. “You’re watching the same Philip, just in a transformed body.”
Harris is still working on rebuilding his strength and has dropped from a 16-pound ball to 15. He knows being in public comes with its risks while the chemotherapy treatments wreak havoc on his immune system.
Still, bowling is one of his favorite pastimes.
“I can’t throw the ball as hard as I used to,” he said. “It felt good to get back. A lot of people were amazed I could bowl. I told them I would be back and give it a shot. I tried and I did it.
“I don’t want to push myself, but it’s an activity to do to build my strength. I can’t go to the gym, so bowling will help me get energized. I know I have to be careful and take precautions. I sit in my own area and we do little air high fives.”
Harris has turned in some solid scores already, as well. He said he averages around 210. After returning, he rolled a 235 and a couple scores in the 220s.
Huge support system
Harris has been overwhelmed by the support he has received from family and friends. When his boss, Diana Merski, owner of Coach’s, learned of the diagnosis, she helped set up the benefit at Greengarden.
A day of bowling was held at the lanes. There was an auction and a bake sale.
Harris was out of West Penn in time to make an appearance and thank those who supported his cause. Harris said he even met people he did not know.
“I didn’t realize how big it was going to be,” he said. “I was so impressed and so amazed by how many people showed up to this thing. I couldn’t do anything but tear up.”
His friend, Meghan Uplinger, said the turnout was an illustration of what Harris means to those around him.
“It was like a huge family reunion,” Uplinger said. “I wasn’t surprised. Everybody knows Phil through the SeaWolves and the Otters and Greengarden Lanes. It was good to see him so alive around people and being social again. The best thing to happen during that benefit was for him to walk through those doors.”
Uplinger and Harris had a predetermined friendship thanks to their mothers, who were friends before their children were born. Uplinger and others made it a point to include Harris as much as possible during his time in Pittsburgh.
“We would have a house party, and we would FaceTime him,” she said. “On Sundays, we play softball and, every game, we would FaceTime him.
“It has definitely been heart-wrenching, but Phil has such a good support system. It’s not just a Phil fight.”
Johnson was particularly struck by the fact that Harris is battling a disease at such a young age.
“In my eyes, Philip is still a little boy,” Johnson said. “He should be out enjoying life and having fun and living his 20s. He shouldn’t have to worry about all the treatments. These aren’t things a 24-year-old should have to worry about.”
Harris thinks his youth has something to do with how he has battled leukemia. There were a few bumps in the road. Uplinger and Johnson credited Harris’ positive attitude throughout the ordeal.
“Through the entire process, Phil never lost his positivity,” Johnson said. “A few times, he stumbled, but he never lost it. He always mustered up a smile and a joke to make me laugh.”