Leaving a legacy

Homemade signs made by Kristie dot the mantel of her fireplace.

In April, 38-year-old Kristie Higdon celebrated with friends after two doctors performed blood work and examined her body for cancer but found none.

The registered nurse thought she was in the clear because the breast cancer she had was aggressive and typically would have reappeared by then.

Higdon, who co-founded the local affiliate of the Young Survival Coalition last year and was the subject of a story in The Post and Courier on Oct. 3, 2011, first was diagnosed with Stage 1 triple receptor negative breast cancer at 33 in February 2007.

A double-mastectomy later that year, primarily out of caution, found more.

The ambitious young woman who had a list of aspirations, from furthering her career and buying a home to getting married and having a child, put her life on hold as she tried to save it.

So when she got the all-clear April 2, she celebrated the milestone and her healthier future with friends.

Carol Young, her godmother, a good friend and who, along with friends Stephanie Townsend and Pat Brame, was one of three primary caregivers for Higdon, recalled being with Higdon when she got the news.

“Both (doctors) said the kind of cancer she had is very aggressive and that if it came back, it would have come back by now. Kristie cried and cried and cried from relief. It was so emotional to be unburdened because of the fear she had lived with for all those years. It was like she could finally go on with her life.”

Young recalled thinking, “This nightmare is behind her.”

On May 5, Higdon participated in the fifth annual Charleston Dragon Boat Festival, a fundraiser for local cancer survivor programs that involves rowing Chinese dragon boats. A week or so later, she suffered pain in her shoulder.

She and others hoped it was a muscle strain from the festival. But the pain persisted for weeks. Higdon, demonstrating her incessant thirst for research and knowledge, read that the late Elizabeth Edwards had similar shoulder pain before her cancer recurred and ultimately took her life.

Higdon, who switched jobs from being a hospice nurse to working at Hollings Cancer Center, eventually had it checked out. A CT scan showed a spot on her lungs. A biopsy June 25 confirmed it was cancer.

Young recalls Higdon’s candidness upon telling her the results: “The lung biopsy came back positive, and that means I’m probably going to die.”

“I felt like I’d been sucker-punched, and yet Kristie was cool, calm and collected. She said to me, ‘It is what it is.’ ”

Higdon started radiation and chemotherapy treatments and returned to work at Hollings.

On June 29, she reported to work and immediately caught the attention of co-workers when she walked into a wall three times. Staff rushed her off for an MRI, which showed that Higdon’s cancer had spread to her brain. She had 11 tumors, including two large ones that were removed the next day.

After the diagnosis, Young was driving Higdon home. Higdon had one request.

“She said, ‘Let’s go to Outback (Steakhouse). I want a Crown (Royal whiskey) and Coke.’ So I took her to Outback. She was determined to live every day she had left. She knew that she was going to die.”

On Sept. 6, a little more than 10 weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer, Higdon’s struggle ended.

Friends and family all say that Higdon, who had a strong faith in God, was not afraid of dying and that her only concern was for the pain of loved ones left behind, particularly her parents, Harold and Peggy Higdon of Kelly, N.C.

Her 74-year-old father talked with her frequently in long phone conversations.

“It (her death) ripped my heart out. I’ve had other people in my life die, but this was the worst,” he says. “She was the center of my life.”

Kristie Higdon and Stephanie Townsend had maintained a friendship since they met as children at Laing Middle School despite having moved away temporarily.

“She was always there for me. She came to see me in the hospital when my son and daughter were born. She was in my wedding. She was always a big part of my life and my children’s lives. She was a really good friend,” Townsend recalls.

Respect for Higdon went beyond her friends and family.

“Kristie had a passion for her field and for continuing education,” Townsend said. “She felt that it was very important that if you were working in certain fields, especially nursing, that you should take it very seriously. It’s not just a j-o-b, but something that you were dedicated to.”

While the war on cancer lost a valuable soldier, Higdon’s legacy lives on in many ways, from the people she touched and inspired to the organization that reaches out to young women who are experiencing breast cancer.

Last summer, Harold Higdon took Kristie out in a wheelchair for an excursion in the neighborhood. A man in an SUV stopped, got out and approached them.

“He said, ‘Kristie, can I give you a hug? You saved my wife’s life. You told her about a suspicious mole, and we had it checked out. Doctors told her it was a very aggressive cancer and that she wouldn’t live two or three months. You saved her life’ ”

“That was Kristie. All she thought about was helping people. And she was straightforward with all of them,” says Harold Higdon.

Higdon says Kristie, who worked mostly as a hospice nurse but was refocusing on cancer care, loved working, almost to the point of obsession, because she loved helping people in a time of need.

“She told me, ‘I’d rather do that than anything else.’ ”

Like many of Higdon’s actions, she had a knack for finding voids and filling them, perhaps the most lasting will be her involvement in creating the Charleston affiliate of the Young Survival Coalition.

She joined Libby Seabrook Brown, who had lost her daughter, Nancy Brown, at 36 to breast cancer, and Tanja Nielsen in forming the group.

Townsend recalls that Higdon felt strongly about the need for young women in their 20s and 30s with breast cancer to share their experiences and expertise.

“I think that Kristie felt that she was not married and didn’t have children and felt a certain affinity with young women who were diagnosed during a time in their lives when they were supposed to be career building, meeting a special person and starting their family,” Townsend said.

“Their experience was different than those who had been married and have children. Not to diminish women over 40 (with breast cancer), but it is a different experience. A lot of young women are single, and they don’t have anyone to be with them 24/7.

“She was dedicated to providing a place for them to create a community.”

Brown got close to Higdon, in part, because she was basically the same age as Nancy.

Higdon attended her last YSC meeting in July, in a wheelchair and accompanied by her three caregiving friends.

“We (the group) got really close over Kristie’s illness,” recalls Brown, adding that the group is more determined than ever to carry on the mission of Higdon and the Young Survival Coalition.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postand courier.com.