Husband, wife face respective cancer diagnoses with thanksgiving, humor

November 21, 2022
a husband and wife, dual cancer survivors, share a laugh
Beth and Kerry Hardy's roles were reversed when he, a lung cancer survivor, became her caregiver when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Photos by Clif Rhodes

Kerry Hardy shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be going to work teaching daycares and church groups how to do CPR; shouldn’t be watching his youngest, his 11-year-old son, grow up; shouldn’t be endlessly teasing his wife.

Seven years after being given two years to live, Kerry Hardy shouldn’t be here.

But he is.

Thanks to clinical trials that he enrolled in at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center under the care of oncologist John Wrangle, M.D., Kerry is continuing to live his life, celebrating milestones with all four of his sons and dealing with the ups and downs of lung cancer along the way.

“We never thought we’d see seven years. Ever,” said Kerry’s wife, Beth.

During these last seven years, not only have they continued to pursue new and different cutting-edge therapies, but they also dealt with Beth’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2020.

The weight of it all could be overwhelming at times. The Hardys leaned on faith, family and friends.

Life with cancer

“You absolutely cannot do it on your own,” Beth said. “When people say, ‘Let me know what I can do’ – they truly don't come to you and say that without meaning it. And so, call them up and say, ‘I need you to come get my children because I need an hour to sit in the bathtub and cry.’ And you need to do that – because it's OK. It's OK to pull into the Food Lion parking lot sometimes and sit there and cry by yourself. You need that, and it’s OK to do that.”

Kerry’s stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis in 2015 was a shock. He’d never smoked. He appeared to be healthy, except that he kept landing in the hospital with pneumonia. That shouldn’t have been happening for someone in his early 50s so his doctor investigated further. That’s when he was diagnosed.

About 10% to 15% of people diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer have never smoked. Never smokers might develop lung cancer because of exposure to secondhand smoke, radon or other environmental factors, or, like Kerry, they might have a genetic mutation that predisposes them to lung cancer.

Kerry, who lives in Augusta, Georgia, immediately began searching for someplace that could offer hope. As an NCI-designated cancer center, Hollings could offer access to clinical trials and the latest therapies that aren’t yet widely available. Kerry advises anyone else facing a diagnosis to similarly seek out care, even if it means traveling past the local hospital or doctor’s office.

“I love a local oncologist,” he said. “They're wonderful people, but they don't have all the tools in their toolbox that a Dr. Wrangle will have. There's just a lot of things out here that people have to get out and see what's available. And I'm living proof of that. I would not be here if we would have stayed at home.”

At Hollings, Kerry was the second patient in a clinical trial to take a drug combination developed at Hollings by Wrangle and Mark Rubenstein, Ph.D., a former colleague at Hollings with whom Wrangle still collaborates. The combination, a PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor combined with a new and powerful immune stimulation drug, ALT-803, shrank Kerry’s tumor by 30% and kept him stable for a few years. When that treatment stopped working, as the researchers expected it eventually would, Wrangle was prepared with another option, the Hardys explained. For the past two years, Kerry has been in a clinical trial for a drug specifically developed with his genetic mutation in mind – something that feels almost miraculous, given how rare the mutation is.

a smiling lung cancer patient with his oncologist 
Kerry Hardy advises other patients to look for a cancer center that can offer clinical trials and the newest therapies that aren't yet widely available.

Through all of this, Beth was Kerry’s caregiver and advocate. She jokes that she walked into every appointment with a four-inch three-ring binder, writing down everything that was said and double-checking the facts on her own.

“Beth has been my rock. And she’s a bulldog,” Kerry said. “And when I’m really sick is when she’s been the best, because there have been times I’ve been lying in bed and can hardly open my eyes, and she’s out there getting things done.”

Beth said she’s motivated to ensure that Kerry gets the best possible treatment – always.

“He often says, ‘These people are the ones who are sticking me with needles. So just remember that and try to be nice,’” she joked. “I am, but I ask the questions because at the end of the day, he's my person. I just want the best.”

Turning the tables

Their roles were flipped, though, when Beth learned that she had breast cancer.

Beth admits that she skipped screening mammograms for the first few years of Kerry’s illness.

“Because things were so tenuous with Kerry's care, and things were kind of scary – he was very, very sick for the first two or three years of the diagnosis, and chemo was rough. I sort of went into survival mode – head in the sand,” she said. “If there was anything wrong, I didn't want to know because then I didn't have to deal with it.”

That wasn’t necessarily the best approach. When her doctor insisted she get a screening mammogram, Beth learned that she had breast cancer.

“Now I’m a huge proponent of mammograms because a mammogram saved my life. It caught it early enough,” she said.

Although the cancer was in an early stage, Beth opted to go directly to a double mastectomy. At that point, their youngest son was 8 years old, and all he had known was having a father who was in and out of treatments for cancer. He was terrified of seeing his mom sick as well. Beth decided that rather than deal with chemotherapy and radiation and the associated side effects, she would have the surgery.

"Laughter is what gets you through it."

Beth Hardy

She advises other caregivers to make time to care for themselves as well.

“I just want to pour all my energy into taking care of Kerry,” she said. “But if I don't take care of myself, I can't take care of (him), and I can't take care of the other people who are depending on me.

“I've got to be the best I can be for myself and take care of myself. Doing the well visits, the mammograms, the colonoscopy – the things that really aren’t the fun things, but they are the things that we have to do just to keep ourselves healthy.”

Beth said that caregivers must make time to seek out support, including logistical, emotional and spiritual support.

“Feeding your soul and your emotional side is hugely important,” she said.

Through it all, the Hardys have continued to laugh.

“Laughter is what gets you through it,” Beth said. “So, we've learned not to take ourselves very seriously at all. It's faith, family, laughter and hope.”