Minnette Wiggins: A Brave Face of Cancer
HOOVER - “I thought I was going to die.”
Those were the words of Trace Crossings Elementary School teacher Minnette Wiggins in December 2017. She had just been diagnosed with Stage III gastric cancer. However, this self-described Southern girl is made of stern stuff and was determined to fight this insidious disease with every fiber in her body.
And that she has.
Back in the classroom she loves so much - she has no plans to slow down anytime soon.
“I have unfinished business. I’m not done doing my part to help these precious children learn.”
Wiggins will be recognized at the Robert E. Reed Foundation’s upcoming 15th annual Finish the Fight Iron Bowl Kickoff event as a “Face of Cancer” on November 21 - a fundraiser hosted at The Club.
“My GI surgical oncologist, Dr. Marty Heslin of the Kirklin Clinic at UAB, asked for my thoughts on being a representative; so, I told him I owed him so much, I owed him my life. I’d be honored to do it.”
Asked to film a video that will be played at the event, she knew there was only one location: her first-grade classroom at Trace Crossings.
“My classroom was my choice of setting (for the video interview). My classroom means that much to me and is so much a part of me.”
Wiggins found herself cancer-free after a hellish 2018 that saw her undergo six weeks of chemotherapy, 28 rounds of radiation and then a total gastrectomy. The gastrectomy, in May, involved the removal of one-third of her esophagus, her entire stomach, and the upper part of her small intestine. Following that procedure, she then focused on slowly regaining her strength with the support of her doctors, her husband Don, her five grown children and step-children, and the unwavering support of her teaching community.
So how did this all begin? Wiggins experienced difficulty swallowing food in late 2017. That was the first sign. Her husband insisted she visit her doctor.
“I was raised tough and am a hard-nosed person, so I wouldn’t have gone without his urging.
“We thought it would be just routine after my general doctor recommended an endoscopy in which my esophagus would be stretched and that would be that. No big deal. Except it was a big deal as they discovered the mass, did an immediate biopsy and felt sure it was cancer.”
She says her head was spinning; she felt destroyed. On top of it all - it was the holidays. Not that there’s ever a great time for a cancer diagnosis.
“Esophageal cancer is not a good diagnosis. I felt fine, that was so confusing to me. I’d looked after myself, I wasn’t a smoker. Nothing pointed to this.”
But, it was now her new reality and a plan was put into action after the first of the year. She took a leave of absence from teaching, unsure if she would ever return to her beloved classroom.
“I ran to my co-workers at Trace. There was so much doubt and unknown, but they were always there for me.”
Through chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments, Wiggins turned her sights to one powerful word.
“My focus was on the word brave. A friend gave me the book 100 Days to Brave. It’s scripture-based and helped me walk through this ordeal in spite of my fears. I clung to that.”
Soon she will start her 38th year in the classroom, the last 18 in Hoover at Rocky Ridge Elementary and Trace Crossings since 2013. Wiggins began her calling in rural south Alabama, before stints in Mobile County and Fairhope.
“I could have quit (after her cancer diagnosis or recovery), but I knew I wasn’t done. I just turned 60 and have plenty of years [in the state system] to retire, but I’m not ready to do that. I just couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning the classroom. I love teaching so much.”
Not difficult to see why she was selected by her peers, in the 2015-16 school year, as the Hoover Elementary Teacher of the Year (and ultimately, a state finalist). At that momentous time she said:
“My successes are when a child is excited about something he has learned, when she has an ‘ah-ha’ moment, when he achieves a goal, and when academics makes a difference to the individual life of a child. My students inspire me daily to be the best teacher I can be, and they deserve nothing less. I am so very proud to be a small part of the teaching world.”
She described herself as an intensely private person, but came forward to tell her cancer story in the hope that people reading it and hearing it would not ignore health symptoms, but rather have them checked out.
“Don’t ignore pain; don’t try to tough it out. See your doctor. I was determined they and the children at the school would see someone battle and win.”
Back in her happy place in the classroom, Wiggins knows she is heading towards the end of her career.
“I know how lucky I am. I’m winning so far, so I want to make the very best use of my time,” Wiggins said. “I’ll have to see what my health looks like, but I want to play it out. I’ll take it school year to school year and see. There are just too many children for me to love on and help grow for me to go anywhere just yet.”