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Starting over: Breast cancer survivor finds strength, spiritual guidance and her calling at VCU Massey Cancer Center

Experience with hospital chaplain inspires Hikisha Harris to follow in his footsteps.

Hikisha Harris in clergy attire Hikisha Harris

By Amy Lacey

Throughout her life, Hikisha Harris often relied on her faith to navigate the especially tough times. Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 11, Harris found comfort in her deep convictions from a young age.

Harris once again turned to God on November 2, 2012, when she faced what would be her greatest health challenge yet.

Hikisha Harris“I was 29-years-old when I was diagnosed. Triple negative breast cancer,” Harris remembered. “I was shocked. I didn't know what to think. “

Harris had just moved back home to Richmond from Texas a few weeks before her diagnosis. At the time, Harris was going through a divorce and raising her toddler son.

“I was already struggling as a single mother. The first thing I thought was, ‘OK, what did I do? Did something happen? Did I cause this to happen to me? Why, God, would you allow this to happen?’ Harris questioned. “You're thinking different things of that nature, and it can either push you towards God or it could take you away from Him. I'm so glad that I pushed towards, to get to know Him more instead of pushing away.”

Harris began her treatment at VCU Massey Cancer Center at Stony Point but transferred to the downtown MCV campus so she could interact with more people. 

“I felt like there was something more I was supposed to be doing, even though I was the one in treatment. I knew I needed to help in some way,” said Harris. “I saw more people going through what I was going through downtown and sat beside more people taking chemo with me.”

Jim Bonomi wearing crazy socksHarris distributed handmade cards to other cancer patients to help them smile. During one of her own infusions, she connected with Jim Bonomo, a chaplain who provided pastoral care at Massey and Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR).

“I noticed his socks, his funky socks. He had different character socks,” Harris described. The colorful, patterned socks served initially as a conversation starter that evolved into a discussion on why Bonomo had become a chaplain. As Bonomo explained the joy he experienced offering spiritual guidance to patients and their families, Harris gained a sense of clarity.

“I said, ‘God, I know what I want to do. I want to go back to school, seminary school, and I want to be a health care chaplain,’” Harris affirmed. “It was just the happiest moment of my life because I just knew. I found where I am. I found what I'm supposed to be doing."

Harris, a VCU graduate who worked in patient services before her diagnosis, began her online pastoral education in 2013. For five years, she balanced her studies with motherhood and her eventual marriage to the man who had been her cancer journey caregiver and companion. In August 2018, Harris received her master’s in divinity from Liberty University.

 “I was licensed on July 1 of last year,” Harris said. “I'm a licensed clergy pastor at the United Methodist Church.”

 

Harris, by now the mother of a daughter born in 2019 as a result of fertility preservation before cancer treatment, contemplated whether chaplaincy was still her calling. When she learned about a clinical pastoral education program, she recognized it as God’s intention.

Harris began her chaplaincy internship at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond in the fall of 2021. She continues to work as a support counselor for the disabled during the day, for Chesterfield County, then serves as a chaplain intern during the evenings and Saturdays.

“A lot has happened over all these years to bring me to this place. It's amazing,” she said. “Anytime I think about what I'm going through now, I look back to say, ‘Thank You, God.’ God got me through that. I am thankful and I'm blessed to have gone through these things so I can be a mouthpiece to talk to other women and to my family about how this one thing, cancer, has given me hope. I pushed through that, and it's helping me to push through what I go through now as a mother, as a minister, as a pastor, as a wife.”

Bonomo, who inspired Harris to pursue chaplaincy, passed away in November 2019 after 20 years at Massey and ChoR.