We helped each other face cancer. Then we found a way to help others too.
Posted in , Apr 1, 2008
I work for a company that makes hospital gowns. I know what you're thinking: those awful, paper-thin robes that never fit right and leave your you-know-what freezing while you wait nervously to undergo a test or treatment.
Well, those are exactly what we don't make. We make soft, comfortable, kimono-style robes that help women and men feel good and look great during difficult times. The garments offer easy access for treatment but look less medical than those gowns everyone hates.
The company is called "Spirited Sisters" because it was started by three gals: my sister Claire, my sister Patty and me. We knew plenty about tests and treatments. From our own experience with cancer we learned to trust the Spirit as it led us, guided us and finally comforted us through a terrible loss. It started with me.
I was used to going to checkups at the dermatologist. It was never a big deal. Years earlier my internist expressed some concern about my basal cells. She recommended that I go to the skin specialist every six months.
Then one day in the spring of 2002 I noticed something a little unusual on my arm. I put it out of my mind until my next appointment. I'd had friends with melanoma—the deadliest type of skin cancer. Whatever I had didn't look like melanoma to me. I didn't think it was anything to worry about.
My dermatologist did a biopsy. Five days later I got home to no fewer than five voicemail messages from her. "You have to have this removed immediately," she said. The urgency in her voice made my heart race. I frantically tried to call her back. I finally reached her. It was a melanoma. It looked nothing like the melanomas I'd seen before, but it comes in many forms. "I've already made an appointment for you with a surgeon," she told me.
I was 52 at the time, with a great career running an interior-design company, my husband, Richard, whom I adored, and two children who needed me. My first thought was, I am going to die. My son, Matthew, was engaged. My next thought was, I'll never make it to Chicago for his wedding…I'll have to ask our priest to come to the house and perform the ceremony here.
My daughter, Meaghan, was in college. I won't get to see her graduate… Richard was also frightened, but calm. "We'll get through this," he said, holding me.
By then it was too late at night to call anyone else. I knew that first thing in the morning I'd call Patty. Not only is she my sister, she's a psychologist. She'd held the hands of friends as they lived with, and sometimes died from, cancer.
My surgery went well. It was followed by radiation, which was followed by interferon therapy. It was exhausting. You know what really bothered me? Those awful, papery robes they made me wear. They became a symbol of the misery of cancer.
But by Christmas, surrounded by the people I love—including my 41-year-old "baby sister" Claire, visiting from California with her six-year-old little girl, Lilly—I was feeling somewhat hopeful. But something else was worrying me: Claire. She'd always been beautiful, outgoing, charming. She was a high-powered executive and a great single mom. But she didn't seem like herself. We were in the kitchen together one night and I asked if something was wrong.
"I haven't been feeling great for a while," she admitted. "I've been having stomach cramps." I thought it was probably stress. When she and Lilly headed home to San Francisco in early January, she was in pain.
Not long after, my phone rang at work. Claire. She was crying. "What is it?" I asked. I could hardly hear her through the tears. "I have colon cancer," she said. And by the time it had been diagnosed, it was stage four and had metastasized.
I'd always associated colon cancer with people much older than Claire. This can't be happening, I thought. I'm the big sister. I'm supposed to take care of everyone. I thought of Claire, my baby sister no matter what age she was, way out there in San Francisco, working so hard and being such a great mom. We all grew up in Massachusetts, but I was the only sister who stayed local.
Now Claire seemed so far away. And with Patty down in Georgia, I felt isolated. Though Claire had an amazing network of friends, it seemed to me we sisters needed to be together.
Patty and I went out as often as we could to help—take Lilly to school, go shopping, offer our shoulders to cry on. Patty and I even took Claire to her chemotherapy treatments. Invariably, we'd roll our eyes at those terrible hospital gowns. "These things are so humiliating," Claire said. "As if cancer isn't bad enough!"
"You'd think they could come up with something better," I said. "These have got to go!" The idea hit all three of us at once.
We quickly came up with a business plan. Patty's the true fashionista in the family and I have a background in design. Why couldn't we build a better garment? We started brainstorming. We called our business "Spirited Sisters" because, let's face it, we were a spirited, feisty group of gals and we always felt such a personal connection to the Holy Spirit.
Soon, we came up with a line of clothing that would let women who faced hours of treatments preserve their modesty and dignity, and empower them. Why stop at robes? The collection—The Original Healing Threads—includes jackets and pants too. All the soft, comfy pieces have hook and loop closures so they're easy to open and close, and give doctors access where they need it.
"If we ever make any money from this," Claire said, "we have to give back. I've been lucky—with family and friends helping me out, and my company paying my salary even when I've been out sick for a whole year. A lot of single moms with cancer don't have that kind of support." Patty and I agreed. We are setting up the Claire Foundation, to help single mothers with life-threatening illnesses—and their kids too.
Claire fought hard. She was the bravest person I ever saw. Near the end of 2005, her doctors told her she had anywhere from three days to three weeks to live. She tried everything—alternative therapies, yoga, acupuncture. She always had a beautifully open mind and figured these things couldn't hurt. We all took great comfort in prayer. Claire so badly wanted to live, for her daughter, Lilly, for us. But her body gave out.
Losing our sister was painful—but Patty and I had no doubt that Claire was finally at peace, with God. For that we gave thanks.
We can't always know the answers to life's deepest questions: who gets cancer and who doesn't; who lives and who dies, we can only know that there is a God who loves us, and in that love is a healing that can find us in so many ways.
Learn more about Healing Threads!
Peg and her sisters, Patty and Claire, discovered the cure for the common hospital gown when they created Healing Threads garments. Peg would like to see the collection expand to include hats for women and men who have lost their hair during chemo treatments, and a children's line. "If we make kids feel like they're playing dress-up, it could make the treatments seem a little easier."