For Sally O’Shea of Granby, stars and stories go well together.
Mother, wife and cheerful helpmate to many are among her identities. Another is, person dealing with ovarian cancer. Others include quilter and writer about her journey coming to terms with mortality.
In the last four years O’Shea has used her sewing skills and life-long passion for fabric to produce and distribute more than 7,000 small star-shaped sacks of colorful fabric with a wide variety of designs filled with millet. They are multi-purpose. You can hold, juggle or play catch with them. You can also use them to meditate, soothe anxiety, project fantasies and sequester sorrow.
They are also great for swapping stories.
On Tuesday O’Shea was to be honored by the Cancer Center of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “The One Hundred,” is an annual event recognizing the work of 100 individuals from around the world who change the way we view cancer.
Those stars are the tangible expressions of her contribution to helping people come to terms with frightening diagnoses. The spirit with which she makes and distributes them, and the infectiously positive outlook she shows the world, are among the reasons she is being called to the stage along with researchers, advocates, caregivers, philanthropists and fellow volunteers at the gala dinner.A ‘generous spirit’
“Sally has an incredibly generous spirit,” said Meredith Lynch, who is involved in the nomination process for the event, which this year drew 700 submissions. “She will meet folks at a (chemotherapy) infusion room and they’ll tell her a little bit about themselves and she’ll go home and make them a star that reflects them.”
O’Shea also leaves her creations in places where people will happen upon them and she sends them to people around the country with whom she feels a connection, like a woman in California who makes a heart as a crafts project every Monday to remember her partner who died of ovarian cancer. (mondayheartsformadalene.com) She recently made a heart out of O’Shea’s stars.
O’Shea knows well the emotional turmoil that comes with facing one’s mortality at an early age. She is 57 and has already outlived the odds she was given when she was diagnosed six years ago on July 21, 2010.
She smiles and laughs easily, but she doesn’t think of herself as a survivor.
“Survival to me suggests that you are past it but it doesn’t feel like that’s an option for me,” she said in an interview recently in the sun-drenched living room of her home. “My cancer is something I have to live with and I have to be at peace with, and I’m getting there.”Accepting destiny
O’Shea retired last year from her job as an administrator of small grants that University of Massachusetts students can apply for through the UMass Fine Arts Center.
She already has had one recurrence since her initial treatment that involved radical surgery and chemotherapy. “I feel like I’ve survived the treatment more than the cancer,” she said.
Given the kind of cancer she has, O’Shea said she can be fairly certain that there will be more recurrences and that they will come at shorter intervals.
“I am not going to survive the cancer. It would be very unlikely that I am going to die of something other than ovarian cancer,” she said with the hint of a tear welling up in her eye.
She has seen others with her diagnosis, “from afar and from close up, how they died.”
She doesn’t see herself as “a fighter,” another term often associated with cancer patients. “I never liked that analogy, though I did feel that’s what it was for me at the beginning.” she said.
Now she is focused on being at peace with destiny.
“I work on accepting that it’s in my body. I created it. It’s there. I need to live with it and love it and stop the anger over it.”
It wouldn’t be wrong to see her decision to spend hours on end making stars as a coping mechanism. But it is much more than that.
The stars are a way in which she promotes connections.Spreading good feeling
Of course, there is a story about how her stars originated. She saw a few similar ones scattered on a table at the Cancer Connection, a respite and resource center in Northampton for people in some way affected by cancer. They were left over from a memorial service.
She was immediately drawn to them not just because or their beauty and promise of meaning, but also because her love of fabric goes way back to her childhood when her mother taught her to sew.
“Wow, this is cool, I can do that,” she thought.
The first day O’Shea spent sewing stars she envisioned that they would be part of her own memorial service. “By the end of the day I was so depressed, I said, ‘I’m not going to do this, it’s kind of morbid.’ ”
Then she had an epiphany. Instead of making the stars for her own imagined funeral, she would make them as a way of spreading good feelings.
“I decided that I would make lots of different patterns,” at the beginning, keeping one of each for herself. The rest she sends out into the world. They go to waiting rooms, friends, family, caregivers and fellow travelers in what she calls the “cancer community.”
At first she set a goal of producing a thousand of them a year, a mark she has far surpassed.
She does them with friends, she works on them on road trips and while watching television with family and she sews them while she’s alone.
Sometimes they distract her from her thoughts. Sometimes they help her think more deeply. She writes down many of her musings. Comfort in writing
Of all the workshops, support groups and integrative therapies “that I’ve faded in and out of as I’ve found them useful,” a weekly writing group, led by a trained facilitator who usually starts by giving participants a prompt, has been one of O’Shea’s most constant sources of comfort.
“It’s been incredibly helpful to me,” she said. The group meets at the Cancer Connection. She posts the short essays and reflections to a private website accessible to friends and she brings copies to her oncologist.
“A lot of my thinking in the last year, year and a half, has been thinking about death and how you make a good death and what is a good death, without knowing exactly what’s going to happen,” said O’Shea.
“You have to really think about what’s important to you and you have to really be able to answer questions about what makes a day worth living.”
O’Shea is also thinking about her evolving relationship with her oncologist as she faces another round of scans in July, coinciding with the sixth anniversary of her diagnosis.Seeking control
Early on O’Shea would reflexively agree to whatever treatment her doctors recommended. She still has faith in them, but she has also educated them about her own preferences in terms of the type and quantity of information she receives.
O’Shea has learned much about letting go and about acceptance. But she also wants to have “a lot of control” over treatment decisions.
“This whole process and having cancer has taught me so much about speaking up for myself. I’m the one who controls my medical care,” said O’Shea. “My oncologist in Boston, she’s my go-to gal, but I went from the point of ‘she runs the deal’ to ‘I run the deal.’ … She knows what I want to know from my scans. I don’t want to know every detail. I don’t want to know what’s coming next, so she gives me just this little sound bite.”
A big decision will be if and when it will be time to start in on another round of chemotherapy.
O’Shea knows that when her time comes she does not want to be in the hospital or in a hospice and she also does not want to be in pain.
“I’d like to be here,” she said glancing around her home. “I’d like to be outside, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. … I want my kids and my family to be ready for it.”
O’Shea’s husband, Tim, 62, is a retired Chicopee firefighter and they have two children, Maggie, 23, and Conor, 18. Rock star moment
O’Shea has been active in the community of people whose lives are in some way touched by cancer. “It’s almost like another family. The people you meet who have cancer, you communicate with them on a deeper level right from the start because you have experienced these things and you just cut through it,” she said.
Two years ago her massage therapist, Nanci Newton, who has a practice in Hadley, was honored as one of “The One Hundred” at Mass General. O’Shea nominated her as she has other people.
By accepting the award herself this year O’Shea is stepping into the spotlight to be even more public about the role cancer is playing in her life. At first she participated in some events, like fundraising walks but she soon came to realize that she values her privacy and likes keeping her activism “a little closer to home.”
So she sews.
“It’s something I’m always coming back to. If I’ve had a really anxious day I can always go to this and feel calm and when I’m sitting at the sewing machine it gives me a lot of time to think,” O’Shea said. “Sometimes I’m just making to-do lists, but a lot of other times I am thinking about people or things, or past experiences. It becomes some sort of meditation.”
The value she places on privacy and solitary reflection is not to say she isn’t thrilled to be part of this year’s event, a $500 per ticket dinner at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel. Last year 1,000 people turned out and $2.1 million was raised to support the Cancer Center.
“I was bouncing off the walls when I was notified. I was like this is my rock star moment, my red carpet moment,” said O’Shea. “I have nominated friends and people who’ve been there — and they’ve said it is the most incredible event to feel really validated for what you are doing and that it makes a difference in the world. I’m humbled.”
She printed up the story of how she began making stars and when friends take them out into the world the story often goes with them. In return, O’Shea gets stories back (sometimes with bits of fabric) about how other people live, cope, struggle and ultimately come to peace with their cancer journeys. She also values connection.
“I am creating these little things which I think look good and feel good and have a lot of positive energy in them,” she said. “They help on some level to heal me. Making them helps me stay focused, helps me stay present, which is what most of us are always trying to do, be in the moment, be present.”
Eric Goldscheider can be reached at email@example.com