Norma Harris – "In Rockland, there's only one man to see"

Norma Harris paints still lifes and landscapes. She takes classes at The Rockland Center for the Arts, and her work has appeared in local shows. She's even sold a few pieces, but Norma says that painting is something she does just for herself.  

Norma, age 66, credits Dr. Bhardwaj with saving her life – two times. First when he treated her breast cancer and now as she receives treatment for lung cancer, which is in remission. Dr. Bhardwaj has cared for Norma for 17 years. 

When Norma was 49, she discovered a lump in her breast. Dr. Leahy, her physician, referred her to Dr. Facelle for surgery. Dr. Leahy is now the President and CEO of Bon Secours Charity Health System, Good Samaritan's parent company. Dr. Facelle has been a surgeon there for more than 25 years.  

Following a lumpectomy, Norma consulted with three oncologists before coming to Dr. Bhardwaj. The first wanted her to begin chemotherapy right away and the second recommended extensive testing. Norma felt uneasy and wanted another consultation. "It's very hard. All of the sudden you have to make life and death decisions without previously having known anything about cancer," she says. 

The Chemotherapy Foundation was her husband's client, and they suggested that Norma call Oncology Associates, also a client. When she did, she got a consultation with Dr. Greenspan at Mount Sinai.  "He is the doctor who invented chemotherapy. He sent me for a chest x-ray and we learned that I had early stage lung cancer. It was not related to the breast cancer. So, the breast cancer saved my life because I had no symptoms. We would not have caught it so early," she says.

Norma would have gone anywhere to receive care, but she knew that it would be much easier if she could undergo treatment closer to her home in Blauvelt.  She says, "Dr. Greenspan told me that in Rockland, there is only one man to see: Dr. Bhardwaj."

"Dr. Bhardwaj was very different from the first two oncologists I had seen. My initial appointment with him was on a Friday. He said that he wanted to think about me over the weekend before he would make recommendations," Norma says.  "Think about me over the weekend? That was just amazing!"

Understandably, Norma was anxious about her diagnosis. But she was also very impressed with Dr. Bhardwaj's approach to providing care. "He doesn’t talk down to you. He gives you options and describes his thinking process behind the recommendations he makes," she says. "I felt that I could put my life in his hands."

The lung cancer was caught early and treated surgically. For the next 10 years, Norma received breast cancer care from Dr. Bhardwaj. In 2011, however, well after the breast cancer had been cured, CT scans revealed that Norma had stage 4 lung cancer. Once again, it was a new and different cancer – not related to the previous lung or breast cancers. 

Norma says, "I asked Dr. Bhardwaj about my chances and he told me we could treat it with an aggressive chemo regime and then with maintenance therapy."

"I am so glad that Dr. Bhardwaj is who he is … and that he is here in Rockland. There were periods during my treatment when I was in his office three times a week. If I had to go into Manhattan, that would have been so hard.  This is much easier.  Of course, I would have traveled anywhere, but I don’t have to. Dr. Bhardwaj knows his stuff."

Norma is feeling well. She talks about coincidences and having good luck. "It's odd to think I am lucky, but I am doing well. Most of the tumors cannot be seen in the most recent PET scan."

When Norma asks Dr. Bhardwaj about what is down the road for her disease management, he tells her that they need to go one step at a time. "His care is not cookie cutter. I think Dr. Bhardwaj sees each case like a puzzle he has to solve. He has to measure how you are reacting and then customize what he recommends."

The staff at The Bobbi Lewis Cancer Program is also a great source of comfort to Norma.  "Many of the nurses have been working here since I first came 17 years ago," she says. "The things I have to go through can be hard, but the staff makes it easier because they are so capable, caring and nice."

More about Norma

Norma and her husband Paul have been married for 42 years. They have three children and two grandchildren. 

Before leaving the workforce to raise her family, Norma was a bacteriologist at hospitals and a research institute in New York City. She later took a job at the Museum of Natural History when she met Paul. When Paul started Mobile Messenger, a messenger service, Norma came on board to help develop the business.

In addition to painting, Norma loves to read and cook. "I like to cook because I like to eat," she laughs.

Living with cancer takes an emotional toll. Norma says, "Sometimes, I feel like I am on the edge, but then Paul reminds me that we're all on the edge."

Norma has always lived day by day, but now she has a different level of awareness. "I enjoy watching my children and grandchildren go through their lives. That is what life is. It's the family getting together and living day to day," Norma says.