Sterling sisters change jobs, priorities after beating cancer

Posted: Sunday, May 18, 2003

Sherry Bradshaw of Sterling found her employment at the Phillips liquefied natural gas plant in Nikiski to be more than just a good job with a comfortable salary. To her, it was like being with family.

"It was so neat. People stayed there 'cause it was such a nice place to work," she said.

One day, after nine years in the human resources department, everything changed.

Bradshaw found a lump in her breast. Despite having regular checkups every year, it didn't show up on any mammograms. It didn't even show up on a sonogram, but she could feel it.

A biopsy confirmed her fears. It was cancer.

"When you have cancer in your family, you resign yourself to it," said Bradshaw, whose mother and sister both had previously been diagnosed with cancer. "Then when it happens to you ... it's devastating."

The surgery to remove the cancerous tissue was scheduled for the following week, and before leaving her job and the people she enjoyed working with, Bradshaw sent out an e-mail message urging all the women at work and the wives of the male employees to get checked out.

"I told them to especially do a self-exam. That's how I found mine," she said.

Following the operation, Bradshaw went through chemotherapy.

"The chemo wiped me out. I was supposed to have eight treatments," she said.

She underwent the first four treatments, called adriamyocin, then began the second set of four taxotere treatments. After the first two, her large intestine ruptured and she was rushed into emergency surgery.

"They thought I wouldn't make it 'cause my white blood cells dropped to nothing. There was nothing there to fight off any infection," she said.

She spent the next week in the Intensive Care Unit of Central Peninsula General Hospital, followed by another week on the ward.

"I really received wonderful care from the doctors and the nurses there ... and, of course, from God. He did what they couldn't," she said.

Bradshaw was released from the hospital just before Christmas and, after healing from the surgeries, she began seven weeks of radiation therapy at Anchorage Regional Hospital.

Although Bradshaw and her husband, John, both had good insurance benefits from their employers, the lodging expenses while in Anchorage were not covered.

"They do provide very reduced rates, but my friends at Phillips did a benefit spaghetti feed and auction for me that raised $5,000 to pay for those expenses," Bradshaw said. "It's surprising and touching to see what people will do."

She said she also received financial help from her church, the Church of Christ in Soldotna.

After the radiation therapy was completed and Bradshaw was on the mend, she returned to her job in human resources at Phillips, but within a year, the picture began changing.

The future of her position was about to change and, having suffered through the extensive cancer surgeries and treatment, so was her outlook on life. She was seeing new priorities.

"I had always had this dream to own a yarn shop," she said. "I thought it would be the coolest thing to sit in a room full of yarn. I never acted on the dream before, but cancer rearranges all your priorities."

Bradshaw talked about the idea with her sister, Darla Towell, also of Sterling. Towell recently had retired early from working in a doctor's office in Soldotna and was planning to just stay home and plant flowers.

"We talked about it on a Thursday," Towell said. "Sherry called Monday and said she quit."

That was in April 2001, and by July 9, the sisters, both about 50, were at a new starting point that manifested itself in Sterling Needleworks, across Warehouse Avenue from the Soldotna Wells Fargo Bank.

Towell, also a cancer survivor, had malignant tumors removed from her bladder in 1996. Her cancer returned, in 1998 and was again surgically removed. Chemotherapy and radiation were not required.

Today the sisters go for regular periodic checkups and so far, so good. Towell's cancer has not returned and Bradshaw's is in full remission.

When the two hatched their business idea in such a short period of time, their husbands were caught by surprise.

John Bradshaw was concerned about the sudden loss of income from Sherry's job at Phillips, but Towell's, husband, Marvin, a sergeant with the Soldotna Police Department, thought it was a great idea.

Both men gladly pitched in to support their wives and helped by building shelves and display counters in the fledgling shop.

The sisters had learned some sewing skills from their grandmother and a great aunt. Knitting came from the great aunt and embroidery and crocheting from the grandmother. Towell also is skilled in cross-stitch.

"We wanted to pass on the needle arts to others," Bradshaw said.

"We get a lot of young girls who want to learn," Towell said. "We have so many different things not just the yarn store so we appeal to a lot of different people.''

"I thought it would be mostly middle-age to older ladies coming in," Bradshaw said. "But we have everybody from teens to older ... men and women both. There's not one demographic."

In fact, two of their customers were a pair of teen-aged boys who were knitting hats for themselves.

"They already knew how to knit," Bradshaw said. "They came in with their mom who said, 'I never thought I'd have to hide my knitting needles from my sons.'"

The two women contributed 50-50 to the business aspect of running the shop and Bradshaw says the computer experience she got while working at Phillips readied her for running a small business.

"I feel all the computer skills and the people I've met were preparing me for this," she said.

Not expecting to get rich from the shop, by any means, the sisters say they are paid in so many other ways.

"We meet some very supportive, really neat people," Bradshaw said.

They also are taking 5 percent of their monthly sales every October and donating it to the national Breast Cancer Research Foundation as a way of giving back.

And, as if just visiting the two is not inspiration enough, their little shop also houses a small, cozy inspirational corner where customers can just sit and browse through idea and pattern books.

Changed forever by the diagnoses of cancer, the sisters have survived so far, and are living a dream in a room filled with yarn.

... Do a self-exam. That's how I found mine. Sherry Bradshaw

The cure rate for cancer is greatly increased by early detection, according to the National Foundation for Cancer Research. Following is a schedule for suggested examinations:

Age 18-20

Females: Complete health exam; yearly pap smear.

Males: Complete health exam; yearly testis self-exam.

Age 20-40

Females: Complete health exam every five years; monthly breast self-exam; yearly pelvic exam, pap smear.

Males: Complete health exam every five years; monthly testis self-exam.

Age 40-50

Females: Complete health exam every three years; monthly breast self-exam; yearly pelvic exam, pap smear, rectal exam, stool blood test; mammogram every one to two years.

Males: Complete health exam every three years; monthly testis self-exam; yearly rectal exam, stool blood test.

Age 50-65

Females: Complete health exam every two years; monthly breast self-exam; yearly pelvic exam, pap smear, rectal exam, stool blood test, mammogram; Proctosigmoidoscopy every three to five years.

Males: Complete health exam every two years; monthly testis self-exam; yearly rectal exam, stool blood test, prostate specific antigen test; Proctosigmoidoscopy every three to five years.

Age 65-plus

Females: Complete health exam every year; monthly breast self-exam; yearly pelvic exam, pap smear, rectal exam, stool blood test, mammogram; Proctosigmoidoscopy every three to five years.

Males: Complete health exam every year; monthly testis self-exam; yearly rectal exam, stool blood test, prostate specific antigen test; Proctosigmoidoscopy every three to five years.

Monthly skin self-exams are recommended for males and females of all ages.



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