Life stories

A nurse who lived with cancer

Harriet Farb thought of helping others - even when she was sick

November 25, 2010 

  • The Stonehenge Stroll for Cancer will be Dec. 4, beginning at 1 p.m. at The Apartments of Stonehenge in Raleigh. Organizer Brenda Anderson, a friend of Harriet Farb, expects the walk around the property to take about 45 minutes. Local merchants have donated pizza and water for the walkers, and prizes will be awarded to the top fundraisers. The walk will benefit the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill in memory of Farb. There is no registration fee, and everyone is welcome. For more information, contact Anderson at 919-847-2717.

  • Born: March 9, 1941, in Newark, N.J.

    Lived: in Raleigh

    Survivors: Daughter, Robin Ratkiewicz of Raleigh; brother, Ron Farb and his wife, Dianne, of Gainesville, Fla.; and sister Alice Surita of Raleigh.

Harriet Farb never talked about being sick. "She didn't have time for that sympathy routine," Brenda Anderson of Raleigh said of her friend.

Farb was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989. The news was a surprise to the self-described "gym rat" who spent considerable energy staying physically fit. "She believed exercise, a proper diet and a good attitude would keep her healthy," said her brother, Ron Farb of Gainesville, Fla.

And for a while, it did. "She wasn't dying from cancer. She was living with it," said Alice Surita of Raleigh, Farb's sister. "She had such a great attitude. I would wake up with an ache and whine for a week."

After surgery and radiation, Farb appeared to have conquered the disease. Then, during a spinning class nine years later, she became ill. Tests revealed the cancer had metastasized to her liver; the prognosis was not good. Her spirit prevailed, though, and she far outlived the predictions of the medical community. "Twelve and a half years ago, she was given six months to a year to live," her brother said. Farb died Oct. 3, more than 20 years after the initial diagnosis.

Ready to help

Farb spent her career as a registered nurse, ideal for a woman who was always concerned about others' well-being. When cancer made her the patient, her focus never wavered. "Through the whole ordeal - and it is an ordeal - she thought of ways to help other people," Ron Farb said.

"She was very independent," Surita said. "You couldn't do anything for her. She went to infusions by herself until the last year."

During chemotherapy treatments at UNC's Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Farb befriended fellow patients. Eventually, though, she was bothered by what she saw. "Gas had gotten expensive, and the people she was accustomed to seeing in the infusion room were not there," Ron said. "They couldn't afford the gas to make the trip for treatments." Farb's determination to provide better resources for families led her to make an ambitious commitment: She would climb a mountain to raise much needed funds.

Farb's sights weren't set on just any mountain. She decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. For support, Farb looked to her brother, Ron, an experienced climber and co-founder of The Ron and Dianne Farb Climb for Cancer Foundation. At the time of her announcement, she didn't know that her cancer had spread.

"That climb is an arduous experience to begin with, so to do it while on chemo is almost unimaginable," Ron said. "She was pretty sick." Farb was not deterred. "Cancer is not a death sentence," she told a reporter. "You learn to live with it." Surita said her brother underestimated their sister's stamina. "That was my sister, proving everybody wrong. When you told her she couldn't do something, that's all she needed to hear."

Her total climbed

To prepare, Farb made daily laps around Shelley Lake, always wearing a sign on her back that said, "Ask me about my Climb for Cancer." In all her months of training, no one ever asked. "It was very disappointing to her," Surita said. "She was working so hard while enduring chemo, and no one wanted to know why."

Farb trained for months, and in January 2008, she flew to Tanzania to join Ron and his team for the weeklong climb.

"She was amazing," Ron Farb said. "She was so dedicated to her cause." Farb climbed nearly 18,000 feet before unusually fierce winds assaulted the team. "It was just bad luck that day." Ron finally convinced Farb that she needed to turn back. She protested, saying she didn't want to let anyone down. "I reminded her that it was the journey, not the destination."

By the end of the adventure, Farb had raised $15,000 for the family resource center at Lineberger, $5,000 more than her original goal. Since then, Climb for Cancer has established Harriet's Helping Hand, a program named for Farb that provides parking vouchers, food vouchers and gas cards to cancer patients and their families.

In July, Ron Farb will help his sister complete the trek she began in 2008. "I am taking Harriet up Kilimanjaro one more time and spreading her ashes at the summit," he said. The climb will be a fundraiser, with all proceeds going to the Lineberger Cancer Center. "My goal is $25,000."

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