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Natalia Harris: Cancer Thriver

When I chose to record a conversation with my dear friend, Dr Egli A. Colon, for the first episode of my podcast Gift to Shift, many people close to both of us cautioned it was too soon. That was in October 2020, just 5 months after her daughter, supermodel Natalia Harris, went home to God. But Egli and I knew it was not too soon. We chose to show up for that conversation the way Natalia showed up for life: with faith, intention, discernment, and bountiful gratitude. Yes, it was painful. But as we discussed in that episode, bearing pain for the greater good was also part of how Nati showed up.

I always told Natalia she was stardust. Her knowledge of that was evident in all she accomplished through the unwavering love and faith she manifested. Today, I still feel her presence with me in the stars and in Heaven, as an angel watching over me. As we approach the one year anniversary of her homegoing, I share this blog as another vehicle for Natalia’s legacy, message, and life’s work to continue to live on.

From an extremely young age, Natalia understood many things beyond her years. She was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at age 12. Aside from 19 rounds of chemotherapy, she also had multiple surgeries to replace her femur and subsequently re-learned to walk. But she didn’t just re-learn. She re-learned with intention. She always knew she wanted to be a model, and so she brought a pair of mom’s stilettos to physical therapy. She didn’t want to just relearn how to walk—she wanted to relearn to walk in heels.

Is it any surprise that thereafter she started her highly-successful modeling career? This journey took her from a few boroughs away in New York Fashion Week, to the offices of Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and Women’s Health, to the studios of Project Runway. To those who knew her as a model, she was uncompromising in her commitment to her faith in Christ and personal convictions around body positivity. She refused to hide the scar on her leg.

Before she got the Vogue cover, and before Season 17 of Project Runway, is when she was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. This time it was renal medullary sarcoma, unrelated to the diagnosis in her youth, and far more aggressive. Another difference was, this time, she said “no” to chemotherapy.

Many perhaps questioned and even condemned this decision on her part. But as Egli put it during our conversation, “Children have a way of teaching us how they want to be parented by us. A lot of times, because we think we have power over them we miss it, and it almost happened to me.” Instead, we all joined together and did research alongside her medical team, and let Natalia make her own, informed decision.

“And I’m glad,” Egli continued, “because in that year and 5 months after her diagnosis, she LIVED. She always lived anyway—nothing stopped her. But in that year and a half she went to Greece and Turkey. Love found her. They planned a life together. I had never seen her so happy. Death was the furthest thing from her mind.”

At the end of our conversation, I asked Egli how she thought Natalia would want her legacy to be displayed in the life of others. Here is what she said:

“Don’t be afraid to dream big, and don’t compare yourself to others along the way to achieve those dreams. Because comparison intimidates us away from going after what we want. Also, be gentle with yourself and with others. I want her to be remembered as a gentle soul who acted past her fear. Not fearless. Fearlessness can set a false expectation. She felt her fear and lived past it anyway…and made sure she left open doors for others behind her. Her dad and I, our whole family, we poured ourselves into Natalia until there was nothing more we could offer her. She is now the gift of all gifts, that keeps on giving.”

Even now, one year after Natalia’s passing, we still feel her with us every day. I encourage you to buy the book Unbroken: A Mother-Daughter Journey of Resilience, Faith and Courage co-authored by Egli and Natalia. I also invite you to listen to the episode of my podcast where this conversation is featured in its entirety.

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