A Northland family is trying desperately to raise $100,000 to give a young dad with cancer more time with his sons.

Whitinga Harris, 31, from Ōtaua, southwest of Kaikohe, was diagnosed with colon cancer late last year just as he was finishing his teaching degree. By the time the stage-four cancer was found it had spread to his stomach, making his prognosis bleak.

Harris, who remains remarkably upbeat, has had major surgery and is now on this third round of chemotherapy. Once the chemo loses its effect, which is expected in about eight months, his time is likely to be measured in weeks.

Whitinga Harris recovers after an eight-hour operation at Rotorua Hospital. Photo / supplied
Whitinga Harris recovers after an eight-hour operation at Rotorua Hospital. Photo / supplied

Cancer specialists say the one drug which could extend Harris' life is not funded for his type of cancer, leaving his family — which is rich in aroha and support but not in money — to raise $100,000 in a matter of months.

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Family spokeswoman Ruby Grace said they had no illusions about the immunotherapy drug Keytruda being some kind of miracle cure, but it did represent hope and Harris' best chance of more time.

In particular he wanted to pass on as much as he could to his sons Waaka, 9, and Heremia, 12.

A former IT technician, Harris decided to train as a primary school teacher so he could ''give back to children''.

He started at AUT in Auckland then transferred to Rotorua where his sons were living at the time.

In October last year, weeks away from finishing his degree, he passed out while teaching. He was rushed to ED where he was found to be severely anaemic.

Tests showed the cause was an aggressive colon cancer which had spread to his stomach lining.

A ''mad rush'' to finish his last assignments followed, then an eight-hour operation which saw a 2kg tumour removed.

Harris, once a solidly built man, lost 40kg and couldn't walk at the time of his graduation ceremony. He was determined, however, to come home to Ōtaua to be with his family.

Grace, who is Waaka and Heremia's mum, said oncologists told the family immunotherapy was suitable for Harris' type of cancer and had been shown to stop or shrink tumours.

However, the unfunded drug costs $87,000, plus hefty administration fees and an extra $1300 every three weeks for two years.

''The kicker is that you can be eligible for state funding if you have lung cancer or melanoma, so it's not like it's some kind of magical, imaginary drug. It's being used right now in our hospitals.''

Harris' latest CT scan had shown new tumours in his stomach lining and liver, ''so the sooner we can start immunotherapy the better it is for Whiti''.

''We're super positive and we have lots of backers, but $100,000 is a lot of money and the short time frame puts a lot of pressure on us. Our family's not well off and we live on Māori land so we can't mortgage the house.''

Whitinga Harris, with his sons Heremia, 12, and Waaka, 9, made it home from hospital just in time for Christmas. Photo / supplied
Whitinga Harris, with his sons Heremia, 12, and Waaka, 9, made it home from hospital just in time for Christmas. Photo / supplied

In a bid to raise the money the family has set up Givealittle and Facebook pages called 'From graduation to hospital gown'. As of this week they had 300-plus donations totalling more than $18,000.

Many of the donations are from whānau — Harris' young nieces in Australia, for example, donate their pocket money every week — but others are from strangers, many of whom leave heart-warming messages.

The family is also organising a raft of fundraising events such as a virtual triathlon and an Easter bunny show at Kaikohe's Pioneer Village. A tattooist cousin is offering $100 tattoos for a week with all proceeds going to the cause.

Harris said he was tired most days due to the chemo but still managed to work in the garden, which he loved, and even mow the lawns despite protestations from family.

He was also planning to put his degree into practice by home-schooling his sons.

''That's my passion, to show them some life skills before I pass on.'' Despite everything he described the months since his diagnosis as an ''awesome journey''.

''You find there's a lot of people who are sympathetic and empathetic. It's nice to hear those things before you die, before the tangi. We've made friends and connections with a really diverse range of people, people we wouldn't usually mix with. That is the silver lining we like to grasp onto as we fall down the rabbit hole.''

■ Go to www.facebook.com/grad2gown or givealittle.co.nz/cause/from-graduation-to-hospital-gown if you want to help.


'Get seen, get checked'

Even if all else fails Whitinga Harris and his whānau hope they can help others by encouraging them to seek medical help early.

''We hope to spread awareness of bowel and colon cancer, among young people especially. A lot of them are going under the radar,'' he said.

Harris had always kept good health so when he was diagnosed he hadn't seen a doctor for about 10 years and didn't even have a GP. He never dreamt he'd get cancer at the age of 31.

Family spokeswoman Ruby Grace said it was important to see a doctor if something wasn't right.

''People can be whakamā (shy) because the symptoms can be a bit embarrassing. They don't want to see a doctor and say, 'I've had diarrhoea for a year', they just manage it. Our message is: Get seen, get checked.''

Harris said they had learnt a great deal about cancer and cancer treatments, and wanted to share that knowledge with other families going though similar experiences.

''We want to keep the ball rolling, even if I do pass on. It's not just us, there's lots of people suffering, and I feel sorry for them.''