- Associated Press - Monday, November 23, 2015

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Hattiesburg tennis buff Ann Harsh was doing great. As captain of a fall tennis team, she had coordinated players from four different clubs to form a 14-player women’s 55-plus team.

“I do love tennis. I love it. Yep,” she said. “I’ve been a team captain a lot. I started playing teams at age 50, and I’ve been on a USTA (United States Tennis Association) team every year since then.”

But this time around, it wasn’t meant to be.

“Everything was going fine, until we had our first two matches and I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said.

Harsh, 68, underwent a double mastectomy and started chemotherapy in September 2014.

“It is scary - I won’t deny that,” she said. “But I’m not going to go down the fear route. It’s a hard thing, and you can choose the way you’re going to handle it.”

During the days Harsh felt her worst, her teammates rallied round her.

“It’s difficult to go through chemo,” she said. “With all the positivity I had from all the people around me - it really helped. They were key to how I got through this.

“A lot of people have depression when they’re in chemotherapy. I was so blessed and humbled by all the support I got, that I didn’t get depressed.”

Harsh said a lump was found during a breast exam at her gynecologist’s office. Her cancer was confirmed several days later.

“I just took a deep breath and said, ‘I’m not the only one who has this problem,’” she said. “But mainly, I think I couldn’t believe it.

“Then, I did what I usually do - I dug in and said, ‘This is what it is.’”

Harsh and her husband had plans to leave for China two days after she was diagnosed. That trip was canceled.

Shortly after she got the news, she called each of her teammates and told them individually what her diagnosis was.

Teammate Jane Shurden said she tried to remain upbeat.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh no, this can’t be right,’” she said. “I wanted it to be a mistake. My next reaction was she will come out of the chemo cancer-free, and she will have cute hair.”

As Harsh went for chemotherapy every three weeks, her teammates advanced to the USTA State Championships in Jackson.

“I wanted to go,” Harsh said. “But I had to support them from here. They were all about playing and playing their best.

“You hear - there is no ‘i’ in team. Because of my situation, they not only did well on the court, they rallied around me emotionally, physically and with support, cards, food.”

The team won State and began practicing to head to Auburn, Alabama, for regionals. While Harsh was grateful for all the support the team was giving her, the women said it was Harsh who was helping.

“(Ann) was deep in chemotherapy,” teammate Dele Byrd said. “She would get our list of players in. She got the money in. She got all our hotel arrangements.

“Then, once we got there, she kept us posted of any schedule changes and she suggested lineups.”

The regionals were played on clay courts, and Byrd said Harsh managed to get the team into the Hattiesburg Racquet Club where clay courts were available.

“Ann, as sick as she was from all her chemo, contacted the president of the board and talked him into giving practice time on the clay courts,” Byrd said. “She would come out in her little bandana, wrapped to the nines and bring us cans of tennis balls.”

Shurden said Ann was a real trooper.

“I never heard her complain even when the chemo was wreaking havoc on her,” she said. “With her unflappable character, she just keeps on putting one foot in front of the other and keeps on going.”

Shurden said Harsh used her great strength as an organizer to help out the women at regionals.

“She had gone online and done all this opposition research on the teams we were going to play,” Shurden said. “She was very instrumental in doing lineups for the team. She brought us all together. She always had a smile on her face. She was always cheery.”

Harsh said while she was doing little things for the team, they were playing their hearts out.

“There was a constant message that they were doing it for me,” she said.

The team was overpowered at regionals and did not advance, but all were proud of their effort. Meanwhile, despite the chemo, Harsh was getting back on the courts.

“One of the side effects of chemo is you can’t be in the sun,” she said. “If you are in the sun, it causes your skin to itch uncontrollably.

“I have a group that plays at 8 a.m. at the Racquet Club, and we play on one of two shady courts.”

Harsh had her last chemo treatment Oct. 15. She almost immediately boarded a plane for Boulder, Colorado, where she and her husband will be moving in the next few weeks.

Harsh said she’s learned that overcoming means reaching out.

“If you can move beyond your situation - I’m going to do the best I can and in the process, I’m going to pay it forward.

“I have five (cancer patients) that I still check on every day. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, it can be as simple as a text message - I’m thinking about you today.”

___

Information from: The Hattiesburg American, https://www.hattiesburgamerican.com


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