By Eva Marie Everson
Sometimes, the worst news becomes the pathway for the best plan. The unexpected detour becomes the road we should travel. Sometimes, we make it up as we go along and other times, life simply makes a way for purpose.
And in that “facing it,” something irrevocable changed. Something new. Something God-ordained.”
And so it was for Pam Sawyer of Winter Springs, Florida who, on February 24, 2014, received “the worse kind of news.” Aggressive Stage 3 breast cancer. And, if that were not enough, the following week her husband was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
But Pam (pictured third from the left in Featured Image) is not the kind of woman who rolls over and lets life beat her up. Instead she faced this unexpected bend in the road head-on. “No woe is me,” she said. “We banded together and faced whatever was coming toward us.”
And in that “facing it,” something irrevocable changed. Something new. Something God-ordained. “I am sitting in the Cancer Institute of Florida in Altamonte Springs,” Pam says, “and I ask Nurse Amy what will I do when my hair starts to fall out. Amy smiles and answers, ‘Wear brighter lipstick and bigger earrings.’”
Sure enough, after two sessions of chemo, Pam saw the tell-tale signs of hair loss. But instead of crying about it, she found herself a pair of scissors and cut her own hair to one-inch all over her head. “This isn’t going to be the boss of me,” she said. Once done, Pam reports that she then felt a huge sense of freedom and control. “I decided that my time at chemo was going to be my time. No internet. No friends sitting there holding my hand. Pam time.”
“I am sitting in the Cancer Institute of Florida in Altamonte Springs,” Pam says, “and I ask Nurse Amy what will I do when my hair starts to fall out. Amy smiles and answers, ‘Wear brighter lipstick and bigger earrings.’”
Long-time friend, Joan Siegel, remembers that “Pam didn’t want a lot of people over during that time.” Even friends who brought over meals knew that a “visit” wasn’t in the schedule.
Pam explains further by saying, “There is nothing to compare to how tired you are during that time. They can be very dark days. Dark, but still … no depression.”
Then, one day while waiting for her name to be called for her chemo session, she noticed a basket on the check in/out counter filled with crocheted hats, then learned that another patient made them and then “gave a gift” to those going through chemo.
That was when “it” hit Pam. “I’ve got to do something to stay busy,” she told herself. Then she remembered that a couple of years earlier a friend, Colleen, had taught her how to make necklaces. But necklaces weren’t in the “recipe” Nurse Amy had given to her. Earrings were. So, she contacted a few friends, Joan included, and said, “Let’s get busy.”
Soon Brighter Lipstick, Bigger Earrings was born. As Pam made earrings, Joan created tags with a swish of lipstick for a logo (although eventually their logo became “kissy lips”). Another friend (also named Joan) joined in—the three of them making earrings, tagging the finished product, and then placing them into a pink and white basket which displayed a note that read: Take One to Brighten Your Day. That basket was then placed next to the basket of knitted caps for chemo patients to help themselves to after a day of treatment.
Shortly after, with new helpers becoming a part of the now-weekly earrings team, Pam contacted a friend named Jodi from nearby Clearwater, Florida who had metastatic cancer.
“I wrote her by snail mail, telling her about my project, saying that I was giving the earrings away at the chemo center and then asking if she wanted any for herself and the center she received her treatments at.”
Yes! Came the reply. Not too long after, while shopping at a garage sale, Jodi purchased a lighted, three-foot Christmas tree which she then hooked the earrings on to. Thus the “earring tree” was implemented as a way to showcase the baubles.
On September 3, 2014, seven months after receiving her diagnosis and after long weeks of treatment, Pam underwent surgery, followed by radiation which lasted through January 2015. With retirement after 34 years of teaching high school students looming, Pam instinctively knew that, with time on her hands and a clean bill of health, she had come upon a new mission. An unexpected road became a path of purpose. “By July of 2015 we invited others to join us in our endeavor to make earrings for cancer patients … and we never looked back.”
Since that time, for over three years now and with a core group of fifteen to twenty, “earrings” has met weekly in Pam’s Winter Springs home to design jewelry as special gifts for those wondering how they’ll handle not only the loss of their hair due to chemo, but—for many—the physical changes that come with breast cancer surgery. This group knows, as they chatter and select the perfect stones for their creations, that they are doing more than simply crafting jewelry. They are bringing hope to those who may otherwise feel hopeless and beauty to women whose sense of self and confidence has been rocked by one of life’s most difficult diagnoses.
“Some of us are all-day girls,” Joan Siegel says as she and Pam look over the photographs that tell their story. “Those are the ones who bring their lunches. Some come just for the mornings and others come only in the afternoons.” However they come … they come.
Brighter Lipstick, Bigger Earrings jewelry is now given at over twenty infusion centers that the original group supplies, including all the way up the Eastern Seaboard to Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA. “They also go to Mayo in Jacksonville,” Pam reports proudly. “Anywhere that wants us, we’ll send our earrings!”
That’s not all. The original group is not the only group. Eventually Pam incorporated, making Brighter Lipstick, Bigger Earrings a 501(c)3. Saturday groups—for those who work during the week but who want to be a part of the project—sprang up. “Once I get them started,” Pam says, “I back off and let their leaders lead. I also let everyone make their earrings based on their own style. We get to see so much wonderful creativity coming out in people.”
But where do the beads and other materials come from? “We look for deals and cut coupons. Seventy percent off is a great deal. But also, we get a lot of broken jewelry that we can recycle and we receive a lot of financial donations as well as packs of beads etc. from people who just go out and buy them.”
And donations they will always need. Since July 6, 2015 Brighter Lipstick, Bigger Earrings had sent out over 45,000 pairs of earrings to cancer infusion centers in twenty locations. Beads and wire and the like is only a part of their necessary inventory. Tags and thank you notes and delivery are factored in as well. And, while the “earring ladies” are busy with their crafting, Pam spends a great deal of time speaking at various organizations about the company, their goals, and their dedication to such a time-consuming call.
“Here’s the amazing thing,” she says, her face lighting up with the telling. “We never mention our faith. We never mention God in our brochures or informational products. We don’t have to. Somehow that message gets through loud and clear. And when I get thank you cards and letters, our unspoken message rings true.” Such as the one she received from a six-year-old hospitalized at Shands. Or from the children of patients whose days of difficulty were lessened by this one bright moment after hours of infusion: the choosing of their earrings.
“It comes full circle,” Joan says with a smile. “Those of us who have been a part of this have developed a camaraderie. Cancer touches everyone in some way or another. It’s touched each one of us. This is a way for us to give back.”
For more information, text Pam Sawyer at 407-461-1158. For financial offering, you can send your donations to Brighter Lipstick, Bigger Earrings, 815 Shallow Brook Avenue, Winter Springs, FL 32708. You can also follow along in the fun by liking Brighter Lipstick, Bigger Earrings on Facebook.
About the Author
Eva Marie Everson is a bestselling, multiple award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction. She is the president of Word Weavers International and the director of Florida Christian Writers Conference and makes her home in Central Florida.