Woman shares her story in photos to help others

Sometimes, in the darkest moments, it can be hard to understand how anything good can emerge out of the bad. As a mother, Angelisa Higgins could not have imagined how her life would change, seemingly for the worse, when she had a routine mammogram in August 2010.

Abnormal test results would lead to a needle biopsy and the difficult news that Higgins had been certain would never come.

“On September 2 of that year, I got a phone call telling me I had invasive ductal carcinoma,” said Higgins, who lives near New Carlisle. “My heart just sank. You know, cancer, the big ‘C.’ It’s just dreadful. It just petrifies you.”

Higgins met with Dr. Thomas Heck, co-medical director of the Samaritan Breast Center at Good Samaritan North Health Center. Dr. Heck suggested an additional blood test just to rule out the possibility of a gene mutation and help determine a course of treatment because of Higgins’ younger age. Research estimates that 45 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA mutation will develop breast cancer by age 70, and 11 to 17 percent will develop ovarian cancer by age 70, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“I thought to myself, I’m not going to test positive,” Higgins said. “No one in my family has that. That’s stuff for people who have a family history.”

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Unfortunately, Higgins not only learned she tested positive for a genetic BRCA2 mutation, but that she had been diagnosed with the “triple negative” form of cancer. Triple negative means the three most common types of receptors known to fuel the majority of breast cancer growth are not present in the cancer tumor, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. So Higgins’ oncologists worked with her to determine which chemotherapy drugs would help her the most.

Bad news seemed to keep coming, but Higgins remained determined to educate herself, and surround herself with family, her church, and the support of an online breast cancer community.

Dr. Heck recommended a bilateral mastectomy, and Higgins learned she might be an ideal candidate for a new, nipple-sparing procedure. However, her research only showed there was very little information available to the public about the procedure. This gave birth to an idea.

“I couldn’t really find anything, so I decided I was going to take pictures all the way through the journey, and it started right after my surgery,” Higgins said.

Her surgery was a success and led to even better news.

“Dr. Heck explained that the final pathology came back and there was no residual cancer,” Higgins said. “There was no invasion anywhere, no lymph nodes, no nothing. Everything was negative!”

She continued to document each step of her journey even through the long process of reconstruction with Dr. R. Michael Johnson, a plastic surgeon at Good Samaritan Hospital.

“Dr. Heck works with an incredible team. He had a plan before I stepped foot into his office, and in my opinion, Dr. Johnson is a phenomenal artist,” Higgins said. “Together, they created a masterpiece and I wanted to share what I had documented to possibly help someone else going through it.”

In the end, Higgins created a masterpiece of her own. The documentation of her breast cancer experience has encouraged women who are also facing the disease.

“What she provided is simply invaluable,” Dr. Heck said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to use the photos in lectures and with my patients. So many patients have benefited due to Angelisa’s willingness to help others.”

If you are facing breast cancer and want to learn more about your surgical options, talk to your doctor. To learn more about cancer care at Premier Health, call (844) 316-HOPE (4673).

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