Cancer Survivor and Mom Celebrates Two Big Milestones

Having a child changes your life. For Karen Higano, giving birth to her son, Connor, actually helped saved her life.

Five years ago, 39-year-old Higano had been in labor for 33 hours when her doctor recommended a Caesarian section. During the surgery, her obstetrician discovered four cysts on her left Fallopian tube. He thought nothing unusual, but removed the cysts and sent them to pathology to be on the safe side.

On the day she left the hospital with her newborn, Higano was hit with the news: ovarian cancer. “When I was diagnosed, I was shocked,” she said. “I knew about breast cancer because my mom was a survivor, but I really had never heard of ovarian cancer.”

Higano, an avid cyclist and non-smoker, had experienced no symptoms of the disease. Also surprising about her diagnosis was her age. According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, the median age of ovarian cancer patients is 63, and less than 12 percent are under age 45. (My own mother, who passed away of ovarian cancer at 54, was considered young for the disease). While Higano’s mother had a history of breast cancer, her own breast cancer susceptibility genetic testing (or BRCA) showed no predisposition to cancer.

Although her cancer was caught at an early stage, immediate treatment was needed to stop the spread of the disease. After waiting five weeks for her C-section to heal, this new mother underwent a complete hysterectomy and six rounds of chemotherapy. Said Higano, “The hardest part of fighting cancer was that right after the hysterectomy, I couldn’t lift my son for three weeks. My mom moved in to help me. Not being able to hold my first and only child was heartbreaking.”

However, Connor played a key role in his mother’s recovery. “The good part was having my son there to help me through this. Because of him, I had the strength to go through the treatments. He was the reason I kept going – I wanted to be there to see him grow up.”

Riding for a cure

This athlete and mom kept her eyes on an important goal throughout her cancer treatment – the 100-mile LIVESTRONG Ride for the Roses event in Austin, Texas, an annual bicycle ride to benefit cancer research. “When I started chemo, that was my goal,” she shared. “It would be my celebration of ending chemo and being cancer free.”

After her fourth chemotherapy treatment, Higano slowly started training for the event, and at one month post-chemo, was able to participate in the local MS 150 ride. Two months after finishing chemo, she accomplished her goal – crossing the finish line at Ride for the Roses completely cancer-free.

While Ride for the Roses was a huge accomplishment, it wasn’t the end in her mission to use her love of biking to help fight ovarian cancer. In September of 2009, Higano, her husband, Stuart, and their friend, Bob Koop, whose own daughter was battling ovarian cancer, kicked off the Trail Ride for Ovarian Cancer Awareness 2K9, a three-day, 230-mile ride on the Katy Trail. Through their efforts, more than $13,000 was raised for cancer awareness and research.

Continuing to help others

Today, Higano is a leader in the battle against ovarian cancer in St. Louis. For the past two years, she has served as president of the St. Louis Ovarian Cancer Awareness group, a nonprofit which spreads the word about ovarian cancer awareness and offers support groups for those fighting the disease.

Because of her history and her position with SLOCA, Higano makes a concerted effort to educate younger women about their risks of ovarian cancer and how to recognize a disease for which no accurate screening tests exist and one in which symptoms often mirror that of other illnesses. In fact, noted Higano, many women just assume their yearly pap smear will uncover any signs of ovarian cancer – a huge misconception among young mothers.

In recognition of Ovarian Cancer Awareness month this September, Higano and SLOCA encourage women of all ages to understand the following symptoms of ovarian cancer:

  • Abdominal pressure, bloating or discomfort
  • Nausea, indigestion or gas 
  • Urinary frequency, constipation or diarrhea
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rectal pain (sometimes during intercourse)

While these symptoms are not uncommon, “women need to be aware that if something is unusual or persistent, they do need to bring it up to their doctor,” explained Higano. “And if you feel you’re not getting the response you need, pressure your doctor to do more tests to figure out what’s wrong. The sooner you catch it, the better chance you have at surviving.”

Higano continues to be an advocate for her health and that of women across the metropolitan area. Most important, this mom just commemorated two incredible milestones – 5-year-old Connor recently started kindergarten and she celebrated five years of living cancer-free.

Editor's note: Want to help in the fight against cancer during Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month? Join SLOCA at the FamiliesROC Roc Star 5K run, an annual run/walk on Sunday, Sept. 26, to raise funds for ovarian cancer research right here in St. Louis.

By Nicole Plegge, Lifestyle Blogger for SmartParenting

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Metro East mom Nicole Plegge is the lifestyle and pop culture blogger for STL Parent. Besides working as a freelance writer & public relations specialist, and raising two daughters and a husband, Nicole's greatest achievements are finding her misplaced car keys each day and managing to leave the house in a stain-free shirt. Her biggest regret is never being accepted to the Eastland School for Girls. Follow Nicole on Twitter @STLWriterinIL 

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