Super Survivor Faced Difficult Infection with Help from Husband

Six weeks every morning. Day in, day out. Tamiko Bilbro-Nicholson’s husband changed the dressing for the open wound on her breast after infection set in from cosmetic surgery.

Even though the 46-year-old Pawnee woman’s breast cancer was caught early, a complication during reconstructive surgery left her with the open wound. Her husband, Adarian Nicholson, would wake up early before his workday so he could tend to Tamiko’s wound, changing the dressing and repacking it with gauze.

“I was embarrassed and felt helpless, but he didn’t bat an eye,” she recalled.

Tamiko is one of three women randomly chosen as Super Survivors to be honored at this year’s Memorial’s Be Aware Women’s Fair. The ninth annual event will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, in the Orr Building on the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.

Super Survivors are women whose breast cancer journeys have been an inspiration to others. Their unique stories will be shared with fair-goers when the Super Survivors reveal their makeovers, courtesy of BJ Grand Salon and Spa, and their new outfits. Organizers have been selecting three Super Survivors to honor each year for the last eight years.

See the reactions of our three Super Survivors when they were surprised with the news.

Tamiko was born and raised in Chicago. She and Adarian, who have been together for 15 years and were recently married, moved to central Illinois about 10 years ago to raise their family away from the city. They have four children: Evian, 22, who’s in the Marines; Emiel, 16; Ezyah, 12; and Ellease, 10, their only girl.

Tamiko began feeling a sensation – like a tugging or pulling – in her shoulder and breast on her left side in May 2017.

After enduring the pain for several weeks, she took her husband’s advice and visited her doctor, who recommended a mammogram.

Cancer runs in Tamiko’s family. Her mother’s grandmother and an aunt on her father’s side of the family had breast cancer. Other cancers have surfaced in her family, including her mother, who lives in Springfield and had both thyroid and colon cancer.

When Tamiko’s cancer diagnosis was confirmed, “it was devastating to say the least, but another part of me knew this day was coming because it was always around me,” she said. “I had always felt this would happen to me.”

Because the cancer was caught early and hadn’t spread, Tamiko didn’t need chemo or radiation therapy. She first had a guided lumpectomy, which failed to remove all the cancer.

That was followed in late June 2017 by a mastectomy and the implantation of a tissue expander, which is an empty breast implant that’s gradually filled with saline over six to eight weeks. The next day, however, her incision didn’t look good.

She was scheduled for emergency surgery to debride the wound. She had developed an abscess from the tissue expander, which had to be removed, leaving the open wound that her husband cleaned daily.

During their daily morning ritual, Tamiko would lay flat on their bed, unable to bring herself to look at her wound. One morning, her husband said, “You can look at it if you want. It’s closed.”

“After that, I felt normal again,” she said.

While she was recovering, Tamiko tried to remain as normal as she could, for her sake as well as her children’s sake. She would have the kids help her with the laundry because she couldn’t lift anything heavy. She would fix a light lunch and eat with her children. “Every day, I’d get up and take a shower, even though I wasn’t going to work,” she recalled.

Her mother, Floriece Bilbro, stayed with the family during Tamiko’s hospital stays. Her friend, Shannon, was also a source of support, always encouraging her. Tamiko said she always tried to remain positive, never wanting to get down on herself.

“Your attitude means everything,” she said. “You have to try to keep normalcy as much as you can.”

Tamiko is now on a five-year plan of tamoxifen, a medication used to prevent breast cancer in women.

Thirty years ago, Tamiko was 16 years old when she watched her aunt die from breast cancer. It’s a memory that still haunts her, but she knows today that breast cancer is “not a death sentence. Medicine has come so far. The options and treatments are far more advanced than they were 30 years ago.”

“If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not,” Tamiko said. “Go see your doctor.”