EXETER – Paula Hughes has her sewing machine set up at the kitchen table where she has been busy celebrating the end of her breast cancer treatment by making fluffy fleece blankets for women seeking comfort during their own battles.
Creating these blankets, which are bright solid pink on one side and white with imprinted pink ribbons on the reverse, reflects Paula’s generous spirit. In this case, the blankets were destined for a cancer treatment center until she learned of two people she knows who have been diagnosed. They will receive the snuggly fleece.
In the wider community, she may be better known for her incredible gift to the girls of Coventry High School.
Paula is the owner of the Three Sisters Boutique located in Oak Harbour Mall, a place she opened nine years ago after a career spent working in a doctor’s office. She plans to be open another month then retire for good and focus on doing volunteer work with women going through treatment.
In her inventory, Paula had 70 brand new prom gowns. “I realized there was no way I could do it [handle the fittings and sales] this year,” she explains. “My daughter-in-law teaches at Coventry High School and got permission for us to set up a Cinderella’s Closet program.
“A lot of the students couldn’t go to the prom because they couldn’t afford a gown. They can cost as much as $200.”
Instead, girls got to choose from among the 70 dresses and everybody could go to the ball, just as Cinderella had. The only condition was the dresses had to be cleaned and returned afterward so they can be used by another set of girls next year.
Paula’s own story comes with a Prince Charming – her husband of nearly 41 years, Bob, whom she started dating in high school – but it also contains an evil curse, a history of breast cancer in her family.
Diagnosed on Sept. 15, 2010, Paula, who turns 60 New Year’s Eve, says she wasn’t surprised.
“My grandmother had it, my aunt had it; my mother had it twice and now she has leukemia.” Paula had melanoma, a form of skin cancer, 10 years ago.
The tumor was detected during a routine gynecologic checkup. “My doctor noticed it and even though I already had a mammogram scheduled, she didn’t want me to wait.” After the initial screening, Paula underwent an ultrasound, biopsy and an MRI. She began chemotherapy on Oct. 13 and finished in March.
“I lost my hair after the third week,” she recalls. “I buzzed my own head. I waited till everyone was gone in case I cried.”
Paula says her husband went with her to every single chemo treatment and “the fact that he was there” meant everything.
In April, she had a partial mastectomy and three lymph nodes were removed during surgery at the Rhode Island Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center. Three weeks later she embarked on 33 radiation treatments.
Paula had her first follow-up mammogram Oct. 5; it was clear.
She laughs, saying she got through the ordeal with “a lot of shopping” and is now engaged in keeping fit by participating in the national Live Strong exercise program sponsored by the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
“It feels great,” she says. “It’s women and men cancer survivors. We use all the [cardio] machines.”
Paula states, “If anyone had told me what I’d be going through I would never have believed I could do it. But you do. Life goes on but it’s difficult.
“Where I am now compared to where I was a year ago has been a journey but I’ve survived it. I’ve learned to really appreciate my family. They rallied so quickly; my sister and sister-in-law took turns driving me [to radiation therapy] every single morning. My family and friends have been incredible.”
She does not call her experience a battle, choosing instead to say she simply takes life one day at a time. But she has long-range plans involving her 12-year-old granddaughter.
“I’m going to dance at her wedding,” she says.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .