Cynthia Bigham walked around Oxford High School flanked by her 16-year-old and 11-year-old daughters before class early on the morning of Oct. 20, all wearing black shirts with the words “Oxford Chargers” written in pink. Her husband and son walked nearby a few feet away.
In front of the group, two students carried a white banner painted for the OHS Pink Walk. The event was more special to Bigham, who serves as the district’s assistant special education director, than some—she had just completed radiation treatments a little more than two weeks earlier on Oct. 5.
Oxford High School recognized Bigham and pre-K teacher assistant Alma Polk during its 7th Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Walk. The OHS Superiors, students with individualized educational needs, and the OHS Student Council sponsored the walk; the parent-teacher organization provided breakfast and decorations. The school sold pink ribbon T-shirts before the event to raise money, and each of the two Charger employees recognized during the walk received a $100 gift. The event is a chance to not only show Oxford High’s support for community members diagnosed with breast cancer but also to raise awareness.
“They often aren’t really talking about breast cancer yet, but this is a pretty fun event and the students enjoy being a part of it,” Oxford School District Director of Communications Heather Lenard told the Mississippi Free Press.
The CDC states that breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States. One in eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Black women are more likely than all other women to die from breast cancer because their tumors often are found at a more advanced stage when treatment is less effective due to lower rates of early detection.
Mississippi has one of the lowest breast cancer screening rates in the nation for older women. The Mississippi Department of Health reports that 25% of Mississippi women do not receive regular screenings.
When Bigham found the lump in her breast, she was not overly concerned. Only a few months before, her yearly mammogram had registered normality. It took her another few months to make an appointment. The nurse practitioner ordered an ultrasound and a diagnostic mammogram—more thorough tests than the annual exam. From there the radiologist ordered a biopsy.
“The biopsy resulted in me being diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma,” Bigham told the Mississippi Free Press. “At that time, it was Grade 1 so very, very small.”
Initially, doctors told Bigham that a small lumpectomy and radiation would be sufficient. She got a second opinion just to be sure. That’s when things changed.
“Ultimately, my diagnosis changed at that point,” Bigham said. “(I) then decided to go on and have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, and the surgical oncologist was also going to remove some lymph nodes just to be sure that it did not spread.”
In her role as assistant special education director, Bigham helps to identify students who may have disabilities and coordinates with schools to determine if an evaluation is needed. All of that paused with her cancer diagnosis. The former Oxford Elementary School principal had her first surgery on Jan. 23, 2023.
The pathology reports revealed that she had six lymph nodes with cancer cells, and the oncologist upgraded her diagnosis to Stage 3 Grade 1 breast cancer. Bigham had four surgeries in five weeks and endured 16 rounds of chemo and six-and-a-half weeks of radiation.
Bigham’s Oxford School District colleagues stood beside her the whole way, she said. They sent emails of concern and encouragement and stepped up to help when she was unable to fulfill her responsibilities at work.
“(The) special education department here was just so instrumental in making this so much easier to bear not being at work because they were so encouraging and willing to take on my workload when I had to be out,” Bigham said.
Bigham pointed out the positives of her diagnosis. During treatments and healing from surgeries, she spent time with her parents, family and friends. She gained a support system filled with doctors, nurses, other patients and Charger families.
“There can be so many things learned from this,” Bigham said. “I tried my best through this whole experience to find joy in the small things that my cancer diagnosis provided. And I just hope to be able to provide that to anyone who has to experience something like this.”
Bigham’s participation in the walk was an opportunity for her to pay homage to other survivors like herself.
“I look forward to opportunities where I can pay it back and encourage (women who have been diagnosed),” Bigham said. “That is something that, although scary, with placing faith over fear it is something that can be conquered.”