‘What cancer cannot do’ seems to be all about Oliver Harvey

November 8th, 2018

A poem ‘What Cancer Cannot Do’ seems to have been written for Oliver Harvey.

“It cannot cripple love. It cannot shatter hope. It cannot corrode faith. … ’’

Oliver, a handsome, fun-loving man, glances at it each time he has treatment in the infusion center at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central.

A photo of Oliver Harvey with wife, Marlene.
UCHealth patient Oliver Harvey with his wife, Marlene, outside their Colorado Springs home. Photos by Mark Reis.

As he receives an immunotherapy drug that is working to halt the cancer inside of him, Oliver and his wife, Marlene, tell the story of how they met.

Sparks flew from the start

Oliver, an over-the-road truck driver, stopped by a clinic where Marlene works, so he could complete a random drug screen for his employer. They had electricity from the start. And, after completing the screen, Oliver, popped the question: “Can I have your phone number?’’

Marlene gave him her number, but when he called a few days later and asked her to go out on a date, she declined. A few weeks later, while in the process of moving from one apartment to another, she called him to ask if he could give her a hand. He told her he happened to be out running around, and he’d come to help.

“He was there in five minutes,’’ Marlene said, her eyes teasing him for wasting no time getting there.

Oliver helped her move some things, then he gave her a few things that he wasn’t using. He helped her set up her home, right down to hanging pictures on the walls. It was some first date.

“There was no strings attached,’’ Oliver said, his eyes twinkling.

A photo of Oliver Harvey
UCHealth patient Oliver Harvey’s strong spirit has steadied him along his journey with lung cancer.

The two eventually settled into Oliver’s townhome on a Colorado Springs golf course and began a life together, enjoying family and friends for barbecues of ribs, French onion cheeseburgers and mouth-watering jerk chicken, and doting on Benson, 3, their pistol of a grandson.

After nine years together, Oliver and Marlene married in May.

“She is my queen. I treat her like a queen because she deserves that. She really does,’’ he said. “I love my wife.’’

An unexpected turn

Little did they know that only a few months after their wedding, Oliver, a former smoker, would begin to experience a pain that couldn’t be knocked down with eight, 600mg of ibuprofen a day.

“I thought I had a pinched nerve in my right shoulder,’’ he said. By December 2016, the pain got so bad that Oliver couldn’t sleep. He was losing weight, his right eye sagged and he had no appetite. His orthopedic doctor, whom he was seeing for a presumed shoulder injury, sent him back to a primary care doctor for a full workup with blood draws and x-rays.

In early February, Marlene took Oliver to the Emergency Department at UCHealth Memorial Hospital because she knew something was wrong. His leg was dragging when he walked. A team of doctors surrounded Oliver. Imaging showed Oliver had a large tumor on his lung, which stretched form his sternum to near his armpit, measuring nearly the size of a Frisbee. The mass, a Pancoast tumor, was so large, it pressed against his spine.

UCHealth patient Oliver Harvey walks with his wife, Marlene, as well as brother, Albert, and Albert’s wife, Patricia, at Oliver’s Colorado Springs home.

Dr. Thomas Ridder, a neurosurgeon at UCHealth Memorial Hospital, explained to Marlene that Oliver needed emergency surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible to relieve pressure on his spine.

Marlene said she told Dr. Ridder: “Whatever we have to do to make sure that he stays on this earth, that’s what we’re going to do.’’.

The surgery

Two days later, on Monday morning, a team that included Dr. Ridder and Dr. Matthew Blum, a thoracic surgeon, began a surgery that would last all day.

“Oliver had a very large lung mass that extended into his spinal column causing spinal cord compression,’’ said Dr. Ridder said. “Without surgery, he probably would have progress to complete paralysis.

“His surgery was very difficult and was combined with Dr. Blum to resect as much of the tumor as possible,’’ Ridder said.

Dr. Ridder explained that surgery involved removing Oliver’s vertebra and replacing it with titanium cage and screws and two titanium rods to stabilize his spine.

Because of the tumor’s location on the lung and spine, surgeons could not remove it all without risking damage to both.  Oliver went to the Intensive Care Unit and then to Memorial’s inpatient rehabilitation unit, located at Memorial Hospital Central on the 7th floor. Further imaging showed the cancer had moved into Oliver’s abdomen and brain.

Determination

“I never claim none of it,’’ he said. “And I won’t. I won’t claim it,’’ he said, refusing to surrender his power to the disease.

UCHealth patient Oliver Harvey adores his wife, Marlene.

During a week in Memorial’s rehabilitation unit, where he participated in physical and occupational therapy, Oliver’s eyes were often fixated on visitors and caregivers who were walking by his room. He knew then, only a few days from surgery, what would be his ultimate goal.

“I’m going to do that,’’ he told Marlene. “I’m going to walk.’’

After a week of therapy, Oliver was transferred to another unit in the hospital where cancer patients are cared for. He continued chemotherapy and radiation, and after 35 days in the hospital, Oliver had enough strength to get himself from the bed and into a wheelchair and he went home. Marlene took time off work so she could care for him.

Keeping the faith

Oliver kept his mind and his prayers on his goal, and delighted in the occasional visit from his grandson, Benson, who wanted Oliver to play.

“Papa, get up,’’ Benson would say. “Get up and play.’’

A photo of Dr. Thomas Ridder
Dr. Thomas Ridder

But Oliver was too weak to stand. He had whittled from 203 pounds to 160 pounds, and his mind was foggy from chemotherapy and radiation. It took everything he had to transfer from his bed to his wheelchair, but he did it.

In time, Oliver grew stronger and Marlene went back to work. Every morning, she makes his breakfast and lunch so he can heat it up in the microwave and get the nourishment that he needs.

He listened through headphones to Gospel music, the songs that remind him of his years growing up in Mississippi, to nourish his soul.

“I go into my own world, I do,’’ he said of the music, noting that his favorite Gospel song, appropriately, is:

I just can’t give up now.’’

I just can’t give up now
I’ve come too far from where
I started from
Nobody told me
The road would be easy
And I don’t believe

He’s brought me this far

To leave me

As the months passed, Oliver fought. He and Marlene asked his oncologist, Dr. Uchenna Njiaju if anything more could be done to fight the cancer, and on Mother’s Day 2018, he began infusions of Keytruda, a drug that prompts the body’s own immune system to launch an attack on cancer cells.

Oliver Harvey cuddles with his grandson Benson in this photograph. (Courtesy of Oliver’s wife, Marlene.)

“Everything started changing,’’ he said, “My immune system started kicking in.’’ Feeling more like himself, Oliver had more energy to tease Benson, the bundle of energy who is fond of using Oliver’s couch as a trampoline.

“I tell him, ‘You don’t do that at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. You don’t jump on the furniture,’ ’’ Oliver said.

“I’m trying to teach him how to keep and appreciate. Every toy he’s got, he done broke. He takes all the wheels off of everything, and you know what I told him, I said, ‘Grandpa’s going to go and buy you all broken toys and then you can take the wheels off.’ “I think he’s going to be an engineer.’’

Like any parent or grandparent, Oliver is curious to see how Benson’s story plays out. What will bring him joy? With whom will he fall in love? Where will life take him?

The monthly infusion treatments of Keytruda have been effective, and there are no signs of cancer in Oliver’s head or abdomen. In the quiet of the afternoons, he tells himself that no matter what happens he will be OK.

Oliver grew stronger every day, building up physical stamina to walk with a walker and enough strength to wean himself from oxygen.

Visits from Benson also helped, immensely.

Oliver recalled a time in late July when Benson asked: “Papa, you like pickles?’’

“Yes, Papa likes pickles,’’ he told him.

“Papa, get up. Papa, get up. Can you get me a pickle?’’

“Let me show you something, baby, ’’ Oliver told told Benson. “ ‘Watch.’ ‘’

He got up, showed Benson how he could walk without his walker, went to the fridge and got Benson a pickle.

“I got rid of the hospital bed. I got rid of the oxygen, and I got rid of the wheelchair. I can’t claim none of this. You cannot claim it – it is not mine,’’ he said.

Bringing light to the cancer clinic

Dr. Njiaju, his oncologist, said Oliver’s “great spirit, enthusiasm and optimism,’’ have been a joy to see, and have helped him face such a serious illness.

A photo of Dr. Uchenna Njiaju
Dr. Uchenna Njiaju

“A Pancoast tumor is near the top of the lung, and it is near the nerves that come out of the spine so it can cause a lot of issues related to those nerves,’’ Dr. Njiaju said. “Sometimes you can have even a change of sweating over the face, sometimes you can have weakness or nerve pains around the arm, sometimes you can have the eyelid drooping so things like that are related to the nerves that the tumor can press on, so that is what is unique about a Pancoast tumor.’’

Oliver’s larger-than-life personality, is a delight in the clinic, Dr. Njiaju said.

“Most of the time we will clap when he walks out,’’ she said. “He will tell me, ‘You know, I am not in the wheelchair anymore.’ And, I say, ‘I see it.’ I line everybody up, and we clap for him because it is huge progress from being almost paralyzed to walking with a cane. He has made huge progress. ‘’

During a recent visit, Oliver glanced at a photo of himself that was taken more than a year ago, when he was beginning the fight for his life.

“I look at myself now,’’ he said. “And I’ve come a long way from there. Everything has been in stages, from the hospital bed to the wheelchair, from the wheelchair to the walker, from the walker to the cane. Everything is step by step and that’s how I planned it. My body is here, but my mind is down the street. You know what I’m telling you? And I’m going to catch up.

Dr. Ridder said Oliver remains one of his heroes.

“His love for Marlene, and his ambition and motivation to walk from the beginning of his diagnosis, have been unrelenting,’’ Dr. Ridder said.

A recent scan of Oliver’s body showed no signs of cancer.

“They’re working on me. They’re trying to kill that thing. And I appreciate what they have done to it. I’m good with me, I’m good with my higher power, I’m good with my wife and my kids. I’m good, and they’re going to be good,’’ he said.

He will continue to fight cancer, but like the poem says, Oliver knows what it cannot do. It cannot cripple love. It cannot shatter hope. It cannot corrode faith. … ’’

About the author

Erin Emery is a writer for UCHealth and is based in Colorado Springs.