27 years cancer-free

CHAMPION — It was a Tuesday morning in 1990 and Nancy Higgins was the first to arrive at the mobile mammography unit offered by St. William Church.

“I just had a feeling the woman found something,” Higgins said. “By Friday of that same week, they sent a letter to my doctor.”

At her follow-up appointment with her family physician, Dr. Louis Loria of Bristolville, she learned that there was a lump on her left breast.

“I remember, my husband, Don, was with me at the appointment,” said Higgins, who celebrated her 55th wedding anniversary in July. “And, Dr. Loria called Dr. Grima, who was the head surgeon at St. Joe’s (St. Joseph Warren Hospital) and said, ‘I want you to see this girl tomorrow.'”

She said she knew then it was serious.

Higgins said she asked Dr. John Grima, “Is there such a thing you can do where you figure out what’s going on, take care of it and then let me know what you did?” And, that’s exactly what happened — all in one day.

On Feb. 19, 1990, a biopsy was performed, which turned out to be cancerous, and a mastectomy was completed.

“My daughter told me, ‘You woke up and said, ‘I have cancer, don’t I?’ On my dad’s side, everyone died of some kind of cancer. It was ingrained in all of us that we would probably die from cancer,” said Higgins, who was one of seven children.

She decided not to have reconstructive surgery after her mastectomy.

“In 1990, they were having trouble with implants bursting and I said, ‘Until they get that straightened out, I’m not getting it done.’ I didn’t want to have to go through that twice. So, I never did get it done, but now I wish I would have,”she said.

About a month after the mastectomy, Higgins began six months of chemotherapy.

“I’d fall asleep on the way home and I’d lay down at home and I wouldn’t hear a thing for four hours. Not the phone ringing, nothing. It’s something you don’t forget,” she said.

She gained 19 pounds and lost her brown, wavy hair.

“After it grew in, it came back really kinky curly,”she said, amid laughter.

Coping was an issue, she said.

“At that time, I wasn’t sure how to deal with what was going on. I didn’t know anyone who had breast cancer and I looked for a group of women who had gone through it. Eventually, I came across the Encore Group in the later ’90s,”Higgins said.

Encore is a breast cancer support group that meets once each month at Buena Vista Cafe in Warren.

She also volunteered at St. Joseph Cancer Center through an organization called Reach to Recovery.

“We would go visit people in their homes or at the hospital if they wanted us to be there. I think it helped them to know someone else out there has gone through this,” Higgins said.

That group faded after Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) medical privacy laws were instituted in 1996. Doctors were no longer able to provide the volunteer group with names or information about patients, Higgins said.

Higgins also cited the support of family, including her son, Todd, daughter, Denise, and husband. Friends and faith also played a role in Higgins’ recovery.

“You go to church, you do a lot of praying,” Higgins said.

Since her original diagnosis in 1990, Higgins has remained cancer-free. She continues to see her oncologist once each year at the St. Joseph Cancer Center for mammograms “and to make sure everything is okay.”

Higgins said, “The doctors know what they’re doing. I have faith in them and do what they tell me.”