‘Most stubborn person in the world’ keeps positive attitude in face of disease

“I’ve been told I’m the most stubborn person in the world,” Jerry Harrell said laughing. “I had it in my head when I was going through chemotherapy that I was not going to get sick, and I was going to do what I wanted to do. Nothing was going to change.”

Harrell, a firm believer that a lot of sickness is in your head, kept his spirits up when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989, and every time it showed up, he said the same thing: “Let’s take care of it and move on.”

Harrell’s journey began in 1989, when he noticed a lump about the size of a golf ball in his groin area. He went to see his family doctor and was immediately referred to Dr. Matthew Stein. After a biopsy, it was determined that Harrell had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He started chemotherapy and then radiation.


Earl Richardson/Contributed Photo

After multiple rounds of treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma extending over 13 years, Jerry Harrell has been free from cancer since 2002.

About this series

This is one in a series of stories about survivors of cancer provided by Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s Endowment Association. These survivors’ stories and photographs hang in the hallway leading to LMH’s Oncology Center.

These stories offer hope to patients being cared for at LMH Oncology and their families.

Harrell had been feeling fine until about five years later when a lump reoccurred in his groin area, but this time on the other side. He was again treated with chemotherapy and then radiation. He was clear of any other issues until about another five years down the road when he found a lump in his neck. He again “took care of it and moved on,” going through chemotherapy and radiation again.

“Then almost five years to the day, every time, it seemed, I wasn’t feeling well,” Harrell recalled. “I was feeling a little tired and went to see the doctor.” After an X-ray and a CT scan, it was confirmed that the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was back. This time it was a lump that was attached to his liver, and he had surgery to remove it. During this time, Dr. Stein told Harrell that his cancer had changed from a slow-growing to a fast-growing type of lymphoma.

That’s when Dr. Stein decided it was time to pull out the big guns, and he referred Harrell to Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha for a stem cell transplant. Harrell spent two months in the Omaha hospital.

The stem cell treatment consisted of a grueling number of tests and harvesting enough blood cells for the transplant.

“I don’t know if I should say this or not, but they actually try to kill you with the stem cell transplant,” Harrell said with a laugh ,remembering his treatment. “It’s rough.” During this two-month stay, Harrell’s wife, Carolyn, stayed with him the entire time and was even involved with his treatment.

“They trained her on how to do all the blood work,” Harrell said. This took a load off the nursing staff and allowed her to stay with Harrell the entire time and be his support system.

“I have to give credit to Dr. Stein,” Harrell said. “He didn’t give up on me.” Harrell remembers fondly how the medical staff during his treatment was out of this world, including his wonderful nurse, Becky, who still works for Dr. Stein. He sees her every time he goes in.

“I thought the treatment was fabulous,” Harrell said. “It’s a lot of trusting in what your doctor tells you. And I trust Dr. Stein.”

During his treatment, Harrell couldn’t work for two years, and his employer, ICL, was very supportive. He’s been with ICL as a senior technician for 36 years. At one point, when he visited his friends at work, he said that he thought they were absolutely sure he wasn’t going to be coming back to work ever again. During the stem cell treatment, Harrell went from about 180 pounds to 135 pounds. Their words were, “You look like walking death.”

These days, Harrell is a healthy father of two and grandfather of four. He keeps busy with Carolyn remodeling a 150-year-old farmhouse in Meriden. Harrell said that if there is one thing he can say to anyone facing a similar diagnosis or just going through a rough time with cancer treatment, it is to “keep your head up and stay confident.”

Harrell still sees Dr. Stein. He started out about every three months for a checkup, and then he graduated to seeing him every six months and then to once a year. Harrell has been seeing Dr. Stein once a year for the past three years.

“I see him right before our birthdays,” he said, referring to the fact that he and Dr. Stein were born days apart and are the same age. “It’s been about 11 years since the stem cell treatment,” he said with a big smile on his face. “I feel fantastic. No medications, no nothing.”


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