Georgia Original: This is a series of stories spotlighting area residents who have contributed to the betterment of Northeast Georgia through their community works.
When Sue Sigmon-Nosach celebrated her 60th birthday, the milestone might not have seemed like much for those who don’t know the Murrayville resident.
Ten years ago, the mosaic artist was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and told by her doctor to “get her affairs in order.” However, the woman surprised everyone by not only beating the nearly fatal disease but remaining cancer-free since 2004.
Following her harrowing fight, the now 61-year-old was at a loss for what to do with her “second chance.” She started taking art classes as a means to cope.
“I came to art after I was diagnosed,” she said. “Art allowed me to project a lot of feelings that I had.”
Soon afterward, Sigmon-Nosach befriended Debbie Torbett, a fellow warrior against ovarian cancer.
Together, the women used art as therapy and ultimately created a philanthropic organization. They formed 2 Broken Broads LLC, an artistic collaboration focused on donating proceeds from their work to various gynecological cancer charities.
“We decided to call ourselves the Broken Broads because we took things that were discarded, like broken glass, and made art,” Sigmon-Nosach said. “Kind of like how we felt broken and discarded when we were diagnosed.”
After almost a decadelong collaboration and eventual formation of an ovarian cancer support group, Sigmon-Nosach is facing a new battle: Running a business and nonprofit without her friend.
This weekend will mark the first Art in the Square event Sigmon-Nosach has attended without Torbett by her side. At the event, the women sold nature-inspired mosaics made out of broken glass.
“Cancer did not define Debbie. Debbie defined cancer,” Sigmon-Nosach said. “She told it where it would be in her life, and the cancer really had to work around her.”
Finally, the cancer got the better of Torbett. She lost her battle and life in January. But she will always be remembered for fighting her diagnosis, which helped her live nine years longer than her initial prognosis. Sigmon-Nosach said.
“(Torbett) continually raised the bar,” she said of her deceased friend. “She was always projecting: ‘I want to get this child married. I want to see this child have a grandchild. I want to see another grandchild. I want to see this, do that,’ and she kept always pushing forward.”
Diagnosed with cancer
While the two women did not share a lot in common when they first met, things changed when both were diagnosed with ovarian cancer. But the women faced their fights months apart. Sigmon-Nosach was in recovery while Torbett began her battle.
Sigmon-Nosach’s battle began in 2004 when she was diagnosed with Stage I clear cell ovarian cancer. She heard the news on her 51st birthday.
Earlier in the year, she experienced fatigue, back and pelvic pain. But like many who are diagnosed with gynecological cancer, Sigmon-Nosach didn’t consider the symptoms serious.
“Look at those symptoms. That could be this, that could be that,” she said. “You moved your sofa this weekend, or maybe you carried your grandchild around. They are symptoms that are for lack of a better term ‘dissed,’ because people go, ‘Oh well, you just did something foolish. You’ll get better.’”
When a doctor’s visit revealed a large malignant tumor in her ovary, the concept of feeling better and healing became slightly more abstract.
“(The doctor’s) message was to get my affairs in order, because in all probability I would be dead by the end of the year,” Sigmon-Nosach said.
In terms of cancer, the Murrayville resident was dealt one of the worst possible hands.
Ovarian cancer is the seventh deadliest types of cancer with a mortality rate of 55.8 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. An estimated 21,980 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in 2014. Of those cases, an estimated 14,270 will be fatal.
Due to their rarity, gynecological cancers are not often the focus of pharmaceutical research and development that can lead to better, more effective treatments.
“The number of cases (of gynecological cancer) is not large, so the profit margin for the companies is not high,” said Dr. Andrew Green, a gynecological oncologist at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. “There’s not a lot of financial incentive for them to develop drugs.”
An annual visit to a gynecologist typically won’t detect ovarian cancer unless it is advanced.
“We’re using the same drugs (to combat gynecological cancers) that we used 50 years ago,” Sigmon-Nosach said. “There is no test. We get just a fraction of the research for the disease. There has been no improvement in mortality in 25 years.”
Despite seemingly insurmountable odds — and some nearly lethal surgical complications, which led to the nasty byproduct of sepsis — Sigmon-Nosach eventually found herself cancer-free.
But she didn’t know her battle against gynecological cancer was just beginning.
Artistic recovery and assistance
“When I came home and completed my treatment, I just felt like I needed to do something,” she said. “Part of that was I didn’t feel like doing much, except picking up a paintbrush.”
Sigmon-Nosach took art classes through Brenau University’s BULLI program. She found her new skills helped to deal with the diagnosis, treatment and recovery.
“When I initially painted, and now when I do a mosaic, it really makes me happy,” she said. “I think it kept me positive and I think it makes other people happy.”
During her recovery, Sigmon-Nosach renewed her acquaintance with Torbett.
“Going from somebody I really didn’t know to all the sudden having something big in common with, we decided we would go down the cancer road together,” Sigmon-Nosach said.
First they formed the 2 Broken Broads. The artistic mosaics are sold online, around town and at local art expos. When the art became more popular, Sigmon-Nosach and Torbett donated some of the profits to gynecological cancer charities.
But it wasn’t long before the women realized the contributions weren’t satisfying their desire to help.
“Debbie was still continuing to undergo treatment, and as she sat in these chemo suites and talked to these women, she never met anybody (who) had gotten money from anybody that we were supporting ,” Sigmon-Nosach said. “That was kind of frustrating.”
Sigmon-Nosach and Torbett soon formed The Partnership for Gynecological Cancer Support, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to women undergoing treatment for gynecological cancer. The focus is not on research but helping women combat the day-to-day stresses and pitfalls of dealing with their diagnosis.
Green helps identify which of his patients would be good candidates for the organization’s support.
“Any cancer treatment is expensive,” Green said. “There are so many costs that are not covered by insurance. That’s where Sue’s group comes in.”
With the help of a few donors who “stepped up immediately” and the Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Cancer Patient Navigators, Sigmon-Nosach and Torbett started alleviating some stresses almost right away.
“The navigators know whose husband has left them, who has been widowed, who has been laid off or lost her job because she can’t work, and so we decided: gas, groceries and utilities,” Sigmon-Nosach said.
The Partnership for Gynecological Cancer Support provides patients with funds for transportation and other travel costs associated with being treated.
Green, a nonprofit board member and one of only about 650 gynecological oncologists in the country, said the nonprofit’s aid to his clients is not to be underestimated. He believes it makes a difference in the patients’ chances of survival.
“Out of my patients, 15-20 percent are uninsured, and another 15 percent are on Medicaid,” he said. “They have vast outside pressures in their lives. Any oncologist will tell you decreasing stress makes a patient’s quality of life better, and that in itself is worth it.”
Sigmon-Nosach has helped people unable to purchase their medication, said Elida Lopez, a cancer patient navigator who works with individuals battling digestive, gynecologic and urological cancers.
“She has helped people to pay for rent that may be close to eviction,” she said. “She will by all means look at the situation and make sure that the help is there for these women who are in desperate need.”
Expanding its reach, purpose
The Partnership for Gynecological Cancer Support experienced exponential growth since its founding. After several successful fundraisers and gathering new donors, the organization was able to “gift” patients up to four times a year.
“Most of these women are working-age mothers,” Lopez said. “Sometimes they’re single parents just in an unfortunate situation, or in a situation where maybe things that are basic to us are difficult for them to get. (Sigmon-Nosach) is just a great person out there, looking out for these women who might not get help somewhere else.”
Even the Kroger gift cards the group dispenses can make a huge impact on the life of a woman struggling with her marriage, job, children and a cancer diagnosis.
“I know that’s making a difference, because it’s removing that element of ‘How am I going to feed my family?’” she said.
Sigmon-Nosach and Torbett’s contributions also have garnered support from other sources. The Partnership for Gynecological Cancer Support was selected as the beneficiary of First Baptist Church’s upcoming Hearts and Hands Emporium.
“Debbie had a hand in that,” Sigmon-Nosach said. “She’s here. She knows.”
With the Hearts and Hands Emporium and the second annual “A Broads’ Brush—the Art of Survivors” benefit at the Quinlan Visual Arts Center coming up, Sigmon-Nosach has beaten more than just the tumor doctors found 10 years ago.
“People don’t want to talk about gynecological cancers,” she said. “They make jokes about saving other parts of the body and there’s T-shirts and there’s everything else, but you’re never going to see a joke or a tagline that says ‘Save the hoo-ha,’ for lack of a better term.”
As a survivor who could’ve just as easily stopped at being just a survivor, Sigmon-Nosach still has even greater aspirations.
“We talk about do-overs in life. Very few of us get a do-over. I got a do-over,” Sigmon-Nosach said. “I know that God didn’t leave me here to knit. He left me with a purpose.”