By Jordan Slobinsky, Point Park News Service:
Laura Higgins’ summer was almost over, and she was preparing for the upcoming school year. After teaching for more than thirty years, she knew how to get ready for school but she wasn’t ready for what her doctors were going to tell her.
In the summer of 2013, Higgins entered Divine Providence Hospital in Williamsport, Pa., for a mammogram, which she hadn’t had in two years. Higgins was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer.
“After they told me, I walked out of the doctor’s office and all the staff was very supportive. I was walking to my car and I called my mother and I was just in disbelief,” Higgins said.
Only a month later, Higgins had a mastectomy. Doctors had to remove one of her breasts to save her life, but the pain Higgins endured lasted much longer.
Higgins’ story is not one that she wants to be glorified, but rather she wants people to understand that she suffered through the battle with cancer.
The financial, emotional, and physical toll that this disease took on Higgins was immense. Unlike the stories that are told by some other cancer survivors, Higgins says that there is a part of the story that no one ever talks about.
Higgins says she has developed depression and other physical problems since she was diagnosed. Higgins recalled the miseries she went through while in chemotherapy.
“I lost my hair, I lost weight, I had a metal taste in my mouth, and I had pain everywhere,” Higgins said.
Through all her agony, Higgins did not want the world to know about her condition. Higgins remarked that she didn’t want anyone to gawk at her and deal with others being involved in her situation.
Higgins relied on her immediate family and a few close friends for support, which she said was never-ending. Living in Lock Haven, Pa., she was hours away from her immediate family who lived in other Pennsylvania communities – Bethel Park, Mount Lebanon and York County.
“My parents came up from Pittsburgh to help me. My sister Elaine also came up a couple times with my parents. All my siblings and family supported me and helped out when they could,” Higgins said.
Higgins’ position as a research and reading teacher in the Keystone Central School District in Clinton County, Pa., was one part of her fight against cancer that she says caused a significant amount of stress for her.
“I remember sitting at chemo one day and there was a man across the room. The social worker there was trying to talk to him and I hear him say, ‘I can’t quit work. I can’t pay the bills if I don’t work.’ A disease like this can financially ruin you,” Higgins said.
Often times she would have to lay on the beds in the nurse’s office at the school in order to gather enough strength to continue teaching for the day. She also did not allow any of the students to know, because she feared they might have teased her or pulled off her wig.
“My principal, Mark Roweder, would take my lunch duty so that I could lay down in the nurse’s office in the middle of the day,” Higgins said.
According to Higgins, the other teachers at the school would offer to help as much as they could, but Higgins said that they could only do so much due to their own schedules.
“I had to keep working. I had to take care of my son,” Higgins said. “Cancer is not a disability.”
Higgins would work half days at Central Mountain Middle School to receive income while not having to totally exhaust herself. Her return to full time work was not until January 2015. While she admits that she had no option other than to take a sabbatical, the school district could only do what their contract with the educators allowed.
Higgins tried to make sure that as few people knew about her condition as possible. In the beginning of her ordeal, Higgins decided that she would not attend group therapy sessions with other patients. The environment did not feel right to her, and she says her attitude about her condition was much more negative than the others.
“I just don’t want to be involved with it, I don’t want to be identified with it, and I just want to pretend it never happened,” Higgins said.
She remembers the dark days during those three years, and knows that not everyone understands exactly what the disease does to someone.
“Cancer ruined my life, and it will never be the same,” Higgins said.
Now three years after her journey began, Higgins cancer is in remission. Weekly physical therapy appointments help to ease her physical pain, but she says that the effect on her life will be everlasting.
“I wouldn’t say that I survived, but that I endured,” Higgins said.
This piece is part of a project on Apocalyptic writing. It will be featured in a print magazine that will be presented at the 8th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium on Friday, April 21, 2017 in the Center for Media Innovation on Point Park University’s campus.