Finding beauty in the journey: How one Karmanos patient is inspiring others through courage, positivity and art

“I think Karmanos doctors did an amazing job of helping me navigate it.”


Everyone’s cancer journey is different, but many who have fought their battle will say hearing, ‘You have cancer,’ is the hardest part.

For Elizabeth Harpster, those words were the beginning of navigating treatment, recovery, survival, and thriving so that she could help others who find themselves in the fight against cancer.

“I think Karmanos doctors did an amazing job of helping me navigate it,” Harpster said. “They were always just a step ahead and explaining, ‘Elizabeth, next week you might feel like this, and you may not.’ At least I knew what was happening and how to react or not react to what I was experiencing.”

That open and honest communication Harpster described helped her face her diagnosis and treatment with bravery and a positive attitude.

Knowledge gave Elizabeth power to move forward

Before her diagnosis and treatment started in early 2020, Harpster was a busy wife and mom of teenage twins. She traveled for work constantly. But, one day, she began having symptoms of a sore throat and swollen glands that did not improve, so she saw her physician. 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 did feel better because a Z pack always makes you feel better, but a week or two later, I still didn’t feel well,” Harpster explained.

In January 2020, at her son’s snowboarding competition, Harpster remarked to a friend that she needed to go home early. Her fatigue, swollen glands, headache, and sore throat were getting the best of her. Harpster’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 should really get this checked out,” Harpster recalled.

So, that’s what she did. She saw an ENT doctor (otolaryngologist) who ordered a CAT scan.

“The next day, he called me and said, ‘You have thyroid cancer.’ That was horrible to hear,” she said. “Then he sent me to an endocrinologist who did a bunch of thyroid tests, and he came back and said, ‘Elizabeth, you don’t have thyroid cancer.’”

Neither physician could confirm a diagnosis, but the endocrinologist did refer her to have her lymph node removed and tested.

“In the meantime, I went to a holistic doctor I had seen on and off throughout my life because I just love holistic doctors,” Harpster explained. “He put me on all these tinctures – ‘just take this little drop of whatever and put it in an herb tea and drink it three times a day.’”

Harpster followed the holistic doctors’ orders until COVID-19 changed life as she and the rest of the world knew it.

“With the pandemic shutdown, you couldn’t even get in for a procedure. You couldn’t even go to the doctor. I was furloughed from work because I traveled all the time, so I just sat home for six weeks and played board games with my kids and my husband, and I drank this green tincture tea and slept and ate good food. I felt fabulous! I checked the swelling in my neck every day, and it was going down. I felt fine.”

Harpster resolved that she had just suffered from a case of mono. By May 2020, as Harpster planned to return to everyday life, she got a phone call from the surgeon she had been referred to for her lymph node removal earlier in the year. That call would set her on a journey she was not prepared for.

“She said that I had been on her docket prior to the shutdown, and she didn’t want me to fall through the cracks.”

Harpster 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,’” Harpster said. “So, I went and had it removed, and days later, I learned I had cancer.”

It was the day before her twins turned 16.

Care and support at Karmanos made the difference

Harpster was referred to Karmanos Cancer Institute, where she was placed under the care of three Head and Neck Oncology Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) members: Ammar Sukari, M.D., medical oncologist and leader of the MDT, Harold Kim, M.D., radiation oncologist, and Jeffrey Hotaling, M.D., FACS, otolaryngologist and surgical oncologist.

“When Elisabeth’s lymph node was removed, testing revealed she had squamous cell carcinoma,” explained Dr. Hotaling. “Since the diagnosis came from the lymph node, this type of cancer usually originates somewhere in the mouth or throat. When she transferred her care to Karmanos, she had what is known as an ‘unknown primary tumor,’ meaning it was unclear where the tumor originated from that had spread to the lymph node in her neck. We then did a robotic tonsillectomy, and I was able to identify 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 linked to several cancers, including tonsil cancer, base of tongue cancer, and some gynecologic cancers.  

Almost everyone will be exposed to HPV at least once in their life because the virus is spread through direct contact. The body’s immune system can usually fight off the virus within two years, but if the virus lasts longer than two years, it can lead to cancer. Throat (oropharyngeal) cancer, which also includes cancers of the tonsil and the base of the tongue, is the most common HPV-related cancer diagnosis in the U.S.

“The type of cancer that Elizabeth had is not particularly common, but the majority of tonsil cancers that we see are related to HPV,” shared Dr. Hotaling. “HPV is known to cause oropharyngeal cancers, but only a small percentage of people’s HPV infection develops into throat cancer. Unfortunately, we don’t have all the information to know why someone does or does not get HPV-related cancer when they are infected with the HPV virus.”

Harpster said knowing the origin helped establish a clear treatment plan, which included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

“I like to tell patients that we’re a one-stop shop at Karmanos,” described Dr. Hotaling. “You walk in and everything will be taken care of in-house. We have a huge team of specialists who only treat head and neck cancer. There’s no need to send a patient to another health system, making things much easier for patients.

“My colleagues, Drs. Sukari, Kim, and I devised a treatment plan with Elizabeth. We all worked closely together and were on the same page throughout her care.”

Harpster said the collaboration and care of her entire team helped keep her going.

“I remember on my first chemo visit, two of the nurses told me they had dogs, and the second time I went in for treatment, I brought them treats for their dogs. Having those relationships and doing those types of things for them made me feel human.”

Harpster’s cancer battle was physically, emotionally and financially challenging.  She had to leave her job, which impacted her family immensely. Harpster remained strong with her husband, Reid, by her side and her twins, who bravely faced their junior year of high school while their mother was undergoing cancer treatment. She also had to figure out how to navigate others in her life – some did not understand what she was going through. Still, she said Dr. Hotaling and the Karmanos team helped fill in the gaps with the support she needed.

Paying it forward for other cancer patients

As Harpster was finding ways to stay engaged in life and make things normal for her family throughout her recovery, she discovered Karmanos music and art therapy sessions. The integrative therapy groups were conducted virtually at that time as the COVID-19 pandemic continued.

“I was on Pinterest, and I saw these birdseed wreaths, and I thought this could be fun to make. It was hard at first because combining all the bird seeds, flour, and all the ingredients made me really tired, but I would make a wreath every day. I made it part of my daily routine for strength and recovery.”

Dr. Hotaling and Elizabeth

Elizabeth and Dr. Sukari

Elizabeth and Dr. Kim

Harpster said a friend’s visit and admiration of the wreaths inspired her. She decided to assemble and deliver birdseed wreath kits for other Karmanos patients, and she conducted a virtual art therapy class herself. At the urging of her friend, Harpster even began selling her birdseed wreaths at local craft shows and art fairs.

“I sit down with my patients and tell them our goal is to get them back to eating, drinking, talking and living their life. We only want this to be a bump in the road and to get them back to doing what they want. It [cancer] will change their life, but we don't want it to take over their life fully.

“In Elizabeth’s case, we were able to do that. And she's doing awesome,” Dr. Hotaling concluded.

While Harpster has started working full-time again, she is not losing sight of her commitment to inspiring others battling cancer.

“The beauty of this journey is there will be unexpected joy along the way if you battle with courage and positivity,” Harpster said. “Get involved in your treatment and talk to your doctors. Take the 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 support and education services, including support groups and integrative therapies, such as art therapy, yoga, massage therapy, and more. Click here to learn more about our programs.

For more information about HPV-related cancers, click here.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with head and neck cancer, consulting with a specialist who has dedicated their career to researching and treating the disease is important. Call 1-800-KARMANOS to make an appointment with one of our experts.