Best-selling author fights back against ovarian cancer

Deborah Harkness found a kindred spirit in gynecologic oncologist Lorna Rodriguez-Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D., who took her concerns seriously and leapt into action like one of her novel's heroines

Deborah Harkness never stops teaching.

A historian, the 58-year-old Harkness holds forth at the University of Southern California, captivating her students with insights on European history and the history of science and medicine, with a little bit of magic and alchemy thrown in for fun. She’s published award-winning volumes on Elizabethan London, numerous journal articles and, reflecting another one of her interests, a wine blog.

Deb Harkness
Deborah Harkness

Chances are, though, if you recognize her name, it’s because of her bestselling All Souls books: “A Discovery of Witches,” “Shadow of Night,” “Time’s Convert” and “The Book of Life.” Described by the New York Times as “Harry Potter for grownups,” the books conjure up a universe of witches, vampires and demons hiding in plain sight. Her readers and fans revel in her vivid imagination and artful use of language.

“She’s brilliant,” said City of Hope surgeon Lorna Rodriguez-Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the Division of Gynecologic Oncology, Department of Surgery. “Every word, every page is so precise, so perfect. She’s an artist.”

She keeps her fans close with regular Instagram updates, which often feature slickly produced videos touting projects like the “Discovery of Witches” TV series (adapted from the books) that ran for three seasons.

A Social Media Shift

More recently, though, the tone of her social media videos changed. Now, it was just Harkness looking into the camera, sometimes sporting long hair, sometimes short hair, sometimes no hair at all, as she spoke about a serious health challenge. 

She even shot one video from City of Hope’s chemotherapy lounge. There she was, seated with an IV in her arm, explaining what was happening to her and how she was dealing with it.

“I believe in the power of education,” she said. “Going through cancer treatment can be a lonely thing for many patients. We need to demystify it. I have a role to play here, to show women that cancer is not a death sentence. It is a life sentence.”

Her fans have responded.

“I am amazed at how many people have commented” on the videos, she said, blinking back tears. “And I’ve learned from them, just as I learn from my students. I can’t imagine doing this alone.”

What she’s doing is fighting back against Stage 2C ovarian cancer. The fight began long before she received the diagnosis.

Harkness was in London in late September 2021 when she began to feel sluggish, followed by repeated bouts of nausea, diarrhea, constipation and back pain. A local doctor thought it was irritable bowel syndrome, but Harkness was suspicious. “I had six of the seven symptoms of ovarian cancer,” she said. But her doctors had other ideas. “They said it was stress. They said I was overweight. They said it was all in my head.” She was angry. 

Returning to the U.S., Harkness visited her own physician and outright demanded that she be thoroughly checked for ovarian cancer.

Results from an ultrasound were the first sign that she might be right.

There was a 14-centimeter mass on her right ovary. No one could say if it was benign or malignant, but Harkness was convinced that she did in fact have cancer and that she had to take charge of her treatment.

“I started calling around to every cancer center,” she recalled, not expecting any to respond right away. One did.

An Immediate Response 

“Dr. Rodriguez called back immediately and insisted that I come in to see her that very day.” said Harkness. “I was really surprised that she would do that.”

Don’t be surprised, said Rodriguez-Rodriguez.

Lorna Rodriguez
Lorna Rodriguez-Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D.

“That’s usually what I do,” she said, “if I know I can offer help. Deborah had no diagnosis yet, but she did have a mass plus symptoms. That’s someone I need to see right away. The sooner I start, the sooner they’ll be cared for.”

She liked Harkness from the start.

“I think we clicked,” she recalled. “She’s a wonderful human being. A mixture of extreme intelligence plus major anxiety over having cancer. She’s very forthcoming, which made it very easy for me to be straightforward with her.”

In this case the straightforward truth was clear, Rodriguez-Rodriguez said. The mass would have to be removed before it could be determined whether it was malignant or benign.

That was fine with Harkness, who says she knew immediately that Rodriguez- Rodriguez was the right physician. In fact, it was an overwhelming experience. “I just burst into tears,” Harkness recalled, “and said to her, ‘I want to live, and I want you to help me.’"

Extensive Surgery

“She was honest,” continued Harkness. “She was forthright — no boilerplate answers. She looked right in my eyes.”

Surgery was scheduled for two weeks later, December 17. Harkness was ready and confident. “I had complete trust in my team,” she said.

But one thing would happen first. Rodriguez- Rodriguez urged Harkness to marry her longtime partner, Karen Halttunen. They’ve been together since 1995, but Rodriguez- Rodriguez pointed out the legal and financial benefits of matrimony, from visitation rights in the hospital to next-of-kin life decisions. Harkness heeded the advice. “We were married a week before the surgery,” she said joyfully.

The surgery went well, but the news was not good. The mass was indeed cancerous, and it had spread to the appendix and other areas, forcing Rodriguez-Rodriguez to remove both ovaries as well as Harkness’ appendix, peritoneum, uterus, fallopian tubes and cervix. Plus, she would need chemotherapy. This news was difficult for Harkness to absorb, but quickly the writer in her found an optimistic way of describing her “new normal.”

“It turns out,” she said, “I can live without all of them. A good edit makes room for something new to grow.”

Harkness also underwent genetic testing and discovered she had a rare variation of the BRCA2 mutation, putting her at high risk for breast cancer as well. Under the INSPIRE (Implementing Next-generation Sequencing for Precision Intervention and Risk Evaluation) study, City of Hope makes comprehensive genetic testing available to every person seen for care — regardless of the diagnosis. INSPIRE has enrolled more than 15,000 people since its launch three and a half years ago, with about 20% of patients testing positive for a disease-causing gene variant. The genetic data obtained has proved extremely valuable for guiding individualized preventive care and treatment strategies. 

Rodriguez-Rodriguez put Harkness on a chemotherapy regimen of carboplatin and paclitaxel, followed by the “maintenance” drug niraparib: a PARP inhibitor, which stops cancer growth by impeding the malignant cells’ ability to repair themselves.

Chemo is rough for most people, and Harkness was no exception. “It was the hardest six months of my life,” she said. Which is a big reason why, a year later, she chose to have a preventive radical mastectomy and reconstruction to minimize her breast cancer risk due to her BRCA2 mutation. 

“I don’t ever want chemo again,” she said.

Working on Her Next Novel

She actively prepared for her second surgery, which took place in June 2023, by using acupuncture and yoga as a form of “prehab.” It paid off. “I healed beautifully,” she said, “and I got my full range of motion back in 10 days” — thanks also to the skill of Veronica Jones, M.D., chief of the Division of Breast Surgery, Department of Surgery.

Regaining her full range of literary motion will take a while longer. Her 18-month battle with cancer has slowed her down, transforming Harkness from a rapid-fire multitasker to a “one-thing-at-a-time girl.” But it hasn’t stopped her. She’ll return to the classroom in January of next year. And novel number five — “The Blackbird Oracle” — is on its way.

For all of it, she’s grateful.

“I feel privileged to be at City of Hope,” she said. “I love their community, how the doctors talk to each other. It’s coordinated care and it’s seamless.”

Is she “cured”?

Many oncologists avoid the “c” word, preferring the safer “NED” — no evidence of disease — instead. Not Rodriguez-Rodriguez. “I love the cure word!” she exclaimed — because it sends the message that the patient can resume her normal life. And although recurrences are possible, “If after five years the cancer doesn’t return, yes, we should say you’re cured.”

Rodriguez-Rodriguez is working on new ways to cure her patients, including a clinical trial for ovarian cancer using CAR T cells — re-engineered immune cells — to attack a specific cancer-causing protein. “I think it’s going to work,” she says enthusiastically.

What also works, concluded Harkness, is teaching women to insist on proper screenings, diagnoses and treatment, if they suspect something is wrong.

“I’m blessed to have this very big platform,” she said. “I don’t want people to be afraid to get the maximum information about their bodies.” To that end, she supports BRCA screening for all patients, regardless of family history. “Had I been screened earlier, I would have had my ovaries removed immediately and I never would have gotten cancer.

“Women need to advocate for themselves and get the help they need. Knowledge is power.”