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My Journey with Cancer with Shirley Utz


In this special episode, we talk with Shirley Utz, the social media Regional Coordinator for Sew Powerful. Shirley shares her passion for Sew Powerful, but she also takes us on her journey with pancreatic cancer. We learn where Shirley was when she received her diagnosis, her surprising reaction and how she has coped with the treatment regimen. You will feel hopeful as we learn of her progress, how friends and family have stayed close, and the way in which Shirley has graciously allowed those who care about her to help her on this journey. Produced commercial-free.


Sew Powerful, purses, tumor, hospital stay during covid, Pancreatic Cancer, Surgery, cancer maker, role friends and family can play during cancer


We are Sew Powerful, How a Global Community of Seamstresses Is Changing Zambia One Girl at A Time, 2nd edition. By Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, © 2016 & 2020 Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, all rights reserved.


The Sew Powerful Podcast shines a light on the people behind the mission to keep girls in school and create purposeful products in Zambia. Join us every week for a new 30-minute episode to meet new people, hear inspiring stories, and learn how you can join us in this global movement. Whether you sew or not, make purses or not, you will find something to enjoy in every episode. Listen today.


Host: Jan Cancila

Guest: Shirley Utz


Jan Cancila, Host 00:04

Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. This is your host, Jan Cancila. You know the sound of my sewing machine means it's time for another episode. So, let's get started.


Jan 00:20

Hello, today we have the privilege of speaking with our dear friend Shirley Utz. We're going to be talking about Shirley's journey with cancer. I'm sure most people in the Sew Powerful community are aware that Shirley has that diagnosis. But we'll get into that in a minute. We're going to start out and talk a little bit with Shirley about her connection and her history with Sew Powerful.


Jan 00:20

This special edition of the Sew Powerful podcast is brought to you today without commercial interruption.


Jan 00:54

So hello, Shirley Utz. How are you today?


Shirley, Guest 00:58

Hello, Jan Cancila. I'm doing pretty good today. Yeah.


Jan 01:02

Well, that's good. I'm so excited that we're going to be able to talk to you. Tell us a little bit. Where are you from originally?


Shirley 01:10

Well, for the most part, I grew up in the panhandle of Florida. And then I met my husband Bradley, and he was in the Air Force. So, we traveled quite a bit then. And then he got out of the regular Air Force and became a reservist and was able to retire from the Air Force that way. But in the meantime, he was a civilian, also. And we got to travel a little bit with that as well. It's just the way jobs were and everything. We landed in Houston, because of a job at Hewlett Packard. So


Jan 01:48

yeah. And where are your house is, is very close to the Hewlett Packard campus there in Houston. Although you know, they're moving.


Shirley 01:56

Yes, yes. And but the stipulation when we bought a house was it has to be close to the office. That's why we landed up where we landed up.


Jan 02:07

Well, on a side note, my son works for Hewlett Packard, and he's working from home. So, any place would be close to the office under those circumstances, right?


Shirley 02:17

It's more, it's more prevalent now to be working from home.


Jan 02:21

Sure, sure. Okay, so everyone at Sew Powerful knows your name and that you volunteer and you're very dedicated and passionate about Sew Powerful. How did you find it in the first place?


Shirley 02:35

I was in a group that posted a little blurb about Sew Powerful, I guess the administrator of the group had found it and thought it was a good project. This was on Facebook. And then I was in a group with Kylie Gersekowski, who lives in Australia. And she said, Well, I'm already on it. I'm starting a Facebook group. So I joined Facebook Facebook group, and we grew it, just by inviting people and talking to people. Just word of mouth, total word of mouth. Little things in different groups about, oh, here's a way you can use up that extra fabric that you bought.


Jan 03:18

When did you and Kylie start the Facebook group?


Shirley 03:21

That was in 2015. Now Sew Powerful had been kind of in process, I think, since 2014, when they had a different pattern for the purse. So, it's a summer of 2015. We had the group and I started sewing purses, and I had this goal of 25 purses. And then I got an eye infection, which prevented me from doing any sewing whatsoever. And I wound up with 10 purses. But I said yeah, next year, it'll be better. So you know, the holidays and everything after the unboxing party. It was like I can't sew until January. So then I had a goal set for 10 purses a month, or something to that effect.


Jan 04:06

And you've probably exceeded that goal, haven't you? You make a lot of purses.


Shirley 04:11

I do. I do. But my focus isn't so much on quantity as it is on quality. And what I'm giving to this girl in Africa has to be extremely special. It can't be something that I just kind of throw together. I don't operate that way. I think anytime we're involved in a charity group, it should not be about making a bunch of them really quickly and not caring about the quality of them.


Jan 04:41

Well, and we've all seen the quality of your purses, your purses are spectacular, they're designer bag quality and I think any girl who gets one of your purses has to just be thrilled that they got a Shirley Utz original.


Shirley 04:57

Thank you. I know there are other ladies in the group They're really outstanding.


Jan 05:02

Well, I mean, you've been an inspiration and you've made us all step up our game. So, I guess I thank you and hate you at the same time for that. No, I love you. There's no way I could hate you. So, you've been making purses and we're going to talk about your situation here in a minute. But this year, you made some purses, and then you cut out more purses. But you weren't able to finish them, and I guess it's not a secret why, but tell our listeners what happened with those cutout purses.


Shirley 05:39

Well, for starters, I made like 19 purses, the first quarter of this year 2020 awful year. And then in May, I started getting a really bad backache. And I couldn't sit to sew. It was just horrendous. Visited my doctor and we did some testing and I wound up in hospital. And we figured out it was cancer of the pancreas. It was caught early. So, there are high hopes that it's gonna be okay. And if not, it's life. I mean, we have to just kind of go with the flow.


Jan 06:21

At the time of your diagnosis, you had a whole lot of purses pre cut, right?


Jan 06:27

I did, I did. And some beautiful person, who prefers to remain anonymous, in the Facebook group, wanted to sew up the purses that I had cut out, which just blew me away that somebody would do that. And also submit them under my name, which is even better. I mean, you know, as far as how altruistic this particular person is. And then another person volunteered to write notes. So, it was a win win for me. I have some that are still partially cut out. I don't have things to go with them. But I am so grateful to my Sew Powerful purse fairies, I called them, to do this. And I think that's one of the wonderful things about Sew Powerful. We have women helping women here in the United States, but also in Zambia, where the seamstresses are. We're really uplifting people. And it's gratifying to me that that's happening.


Jan 07:39

Okay, well, you let the cat out of the bag. You were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Now, when was that?


Shirley 07:48

That was over Mother's Day weekend. I spent Mother's Day in the hospital.


Jan 07:52

Oh. Okay, well, well back up a little bit because I know that you had been posting on Facebook that you weren't able to produce the normal quantity of purses because your back was bothering you. And I think everybody was giving you hints: get a better chair, sit up straight. I mean, you know, but obviously that wasn't it. So what led you to go to the doctor?


Shirley 08:17

Well, I wound up with jaundice. So yeah, very yellow face for this, this red face here. Well, I had called her I had done a virtual with her and she thought it was just over exertion or something. And, and then when I started showing jaundice symptoms, I said, Okay, I've got to come in and get tested. So, she did an X ray. And then she had a CT scan scheduled for me. And then I went into the hospital because I needed an MRI. And that's what detected the tumor to begin with. And they were able to put in a stent in my biliary duct to help everything.


Jan 09:03

And did you get your diagnosis while you were in the hospital?


Shirley 09:07

I did. I did.


Jan 09:09

And was your husband with you?


Shirley 09:10

No, because COVID nobody was allowed to visit.


Jan 09:13

I'm sorry? You were all alone in a hospital room when you were diagnosed?


Shirley 09:17

I was.


Jan 09:17

Oh, Shirley, that must have been really hard.


Shirley 09:21

Well, being an introvert. So easy for me to be on my own. I mean, I know a lot of people have difficulty with that. But I don't. It's just my phone. I played games. I have my Kindle. I read books. Unfortunately, now I'm having so many wicked problems with my eyes. I think it's gonna mean like cataract surgery or something. I don't know. The doctor told me that cataracts tend to grow more quickly if you're having the cancer treatment. So


Jan 09:58

Okay, so you're In the hospital, you get the diagnosis, and then they send you home because they were just keeping you there to try and figure out what was going on. Right?


Shirley 10:08

Well, one of the reasons was when they did the stent, that required being in a surgical situation.


Jan 10:15



Shirley 10:15

And it got postponed, because my first COVID test didn't come back with any kind of results.


Jan 10:23



Shirley 10:23

And so I had to have a second one. It was one of those deep nasal cavity ones. Hmm, horrible.


Jan 10:31

Yeah, yeah. Well, fortunately, I haven't had to have one of those yet. Okay, so how long were you in the hospital before they sent you home?


Shirley 10:39

Um, let me see. I went in on a Friday evening and was released on Tuesday morning.


Jan 10:46

On Tuesday. Okay, so I think when you got home that might have been when you announced it on Facebook, right?


Shirley 10:54

You know, I'm not really sure when I did. At that point they knew there was a tumor there, they tried to do a, what's called a brushing of the tumor to see if it was cancerous or not, but they didn't get any results from that. I had to have another procedure a little bit later, to have an actual biopsy done of the tumor. And I think it was after that, which was probably mid to end of June, I announced that I ...


Jan 11:25

Okay. Okay, so, how did your family react when they heard the diagnosis?


Shirley 11:34

Um, my husband was like, okay, you know, we're going through this. I have one sister who lives in Florida still. And she and I talked. Her husband had died of lung cancer, so she was very worried. I guess. For me, myself, I'm just like, okay, it's just another hurdle. I mean, you know, life is full of them. So I'm a very calm person.


Jan 12:03

You certainly are, because that wasn't my reaction when I heard your diagnosis.


Shirley 12:11

It's really funny, because I had to call the doctor to get the results of the biopsy. And he said, Well, it is cancerous. And I said, Okay, thank you.


Jan 12:22

He probably wrote down in his notes 'In denial'. You started a Facebook group, to tell your friends and family how you were doing and what your progress was. Tell us a little bit about that.


Shirley 12:38

It's just a private group for very close friends and family. And I mean, has 51 members. So, I guess I have a lot of friends and family, right?


Shirley 12:48

Yeah, yeah,


Shirley 12:49

It's a joy to have the group because it keeps me interacting with people. And COVID, you know, has put so many barriers to us doing that kind of thing. So I relate to people what's going on on infusion days, how I'm feeling, any weird symptoms I'm having. I've put in a couple of poems I've written. I just just share and people share back with me, but I always am asking also for questions of the people in the group of how are you doing? What are you grateful for today? What brings sunshine to your life?... little episodic questions here and there. And the responses are really good.


Jan 13:31

I'm very privileged to be in that group. And I've never seen a post from you, that was woe is me. You are always wondering and caring about the rest of us. So again, it's your kind and generous heart. We thank you for


Shirley 13:47

Thank you, sweetie.


Jan 13:49

I watched a TED talk about a man who had been diagnosed with cancer. And I thought this was so eloquent how he put this. One of the difficulties was the feeling of isolation, and it wasn't necessarily physical isolation, but he described having his regular life for him was his job, his family, his responsibilities; and his other life, his cancer life, that was doctor's appointments, medications, chemotherapy, radiation, feeling tired, feeling sick, and the way that his friends were reluctant to interact with his cancer life. And he used a term that he needed his friends to be a bridge between his regular life and his cancer life because the doctors were taking care of the medical part. But he needed his friends and family to be that bridge. And that was an eye opener for me and I just wonder how you feel about that.


Shirley 14:52

I agree wholeheartedly. And that's one of the reasons I started the group as soon as I started having cancer treatments. It was because I needed to know that there were people who cared. And they didn't have to say a lot, even just a little heart emoji on a post or whatever, or the the care emoji, anything that would just bring a smile to my heart. Because yeah, just get kind of depressing sometimes because there are circumstances that arise and it's like, I can't do this anymore. Or I have to go take a nap. And it winds up being three hours. My life is way different from what it had been. One of the solaces too, is that I keep dreaming up new purses.


Jan 15:42

Well, that's good. Yay.


Shirley 15:45

And buying new fabric. So, so that's an optimistic thing, you know, that keep buying fabric and I figured, well, if anything happens to me, I know people who it can go to. My list for my husband.


Jan 16:02

Now, one of the things that you share in this special Facebook group is your cancer marker level?


Shirley 16:10



Jan 16:11

Could you explain that and tell us where you started out and where you are now?


Shirley 16:16

Yes, a cancer marker is a special cancer marker for pancreatic cancer. And it's achieved by taking blood work that is called a carbohydrate antigen 19 dash nine,


Jan 16:30



Shirley 16:31

And that marker can be really high. I have an app on my phone for people who are going through different forms of cancer. And they've talked about their cancer marker being like 49,000, or something, which is just astronomical to me. Mine started out at 958, rose to 1057. And we are now down to 113.


Jan 17:00

Oh my.


Shirley 17:01

That's a good sign.


Jan 17:02



Shirley 17:03

And the normal marker should be between zero and 35. So I'm really close. And I have two more infusions in this month, one being this coming Monday. And then I get to have a new CT scan, go see my surgeon again, see if we've shrunk the tumor enough, and it has shrunk. It's just not where he wanted it to be. So then I get to hopefully have what's known as Whipple surgery, and the Whipple will remove some pieces of my digestive system. But if the tumor can be removed, then I might require some minimal chemotherapy and maybe radiation just to make sure that we've got all the bits out of there but it remains to be seen. If I do get to have the surgery, the good thing is I get to have a four week break from any kind of infusion.


Jan 18:01

Yeah. One of the things I was wondering about: you've had this diagnosis and all your treatments during COVID. What special precautions does the doctor, or the hospital take when you go in? Because the last thing we need is for you to get COVID.


Shirley 18:21

Right, the clinic I go to, they check your temperature, they ask you questions and everything when you go in. You have to wear a mask. And there's a lot of hand washing and sanitizer and that type of thing. And they sanitize everything in the infusion center in the doctor's office, and they have social distancing. And the chairs are moved, like far from each other. And they still have two chairs together because when somebody's coming for cancer treatment, there's usually someone accompany them.


Jan 18:54

Hmm. Hmm.


Shirley 18:56

'Cause I can't drive anymore. I feel too iffy on now.


Jan 18:59

Gotcha. Has technology played a role in being able to connect with your family or friends during this time?


Shirley 19:08

Oh, yeah, I use text messaging and Facebook and Instagram and whatever it takes.


Jan 19:17

And what would you like your friends to do to help you stay connected during this time?


Shirley 19:24

Oh, just pop in occasionally on my Facebook page or in the group or I've had a couple of people message me who are not part of my close connection, but it's been people who've gone through cancer. So, I'm open to those types of connections. For my family, we keep in touch by text pretty much and it seems to work for us.


Jan 19:50

Well, you're the Regional Coordinator for Facebook for Sew Powerful and I see that you for the most part are still doing that job pretty much answering questions, directing people to files, welcoming new people. I mean, how has that worked out?


Shirley 20:09

I try to do that because it keeps me connected to my passion, which is Sew Powerful. Louise Ambrosi in the UK helps me out on the weeks that I've gone through infusion because it takes me quite a few days to get realigned with real life, because I sleep a lot. I feel kind of off balance when I'm trying to walk and that type of thing. So yeah, she's such a great help and I love her dearly. She also sent me a book.


Jan 20:43

I know.


Shirley 20:44

I know, I


Jan 20:45

Didn't she send you some tea also,


Shirley 20:47

Oh, yes, my Yorkshire Gold Tea. And then another friend in the UK, Allison just sent me a face mask holder and a holder for my hand sanitizer that I can hang off my bag.


Jan 21:00

That's so cool.


Shirley 21:01

It was really sweet and had owls on it. I was so excited.


Jan 21:06

So international giving, that's fantastic. Shirley, do you have any advice for people who maybe feel like they have some symptoms, but they haven't made time to go to the doctor? If there's something you could tell them to do?


Shirley 21:22

Well, there's so many different forms of cancer, I really can't offer a lot of suggestions except that if you don't feel right, be persistent in getting your health checked out. And it may be nothing, but it could be something. You just never know.


Jan 21:38

Mm hmm. I know you've told us this before, but sort of give us a timeline for the next few weeks. What are you looking forward to in terms of your treatment?


Shirley 21:47

Well, as I mentioned earlier, I have two more infusions. The last one will be right before Thanksgiving. So that's going to be a fun week, we're we're ordering dinner


Jan 21:57

Good for you. Cancer or not, good for you.


Shirley 22:01

We're ordering dinner from Whole Foods, and if I can eat it, fine. If I can't, I'll just save it for when I can. And then I have another CT scan, a visit with the surgeon and with my doctor. And then hopefully December will be free and clear, so I can just get back some of my energy and get rid of a little bit of my brain fog because chemo does a number on the memory. And sometimes the word I'm searching for, I can speak what I'm looking at, but I can't think of the name of it and it may be something very, very tiny.


Jan 22:38

Well, and and honestly, I have that, and I don't have a good excuse. But I have heard of cancer brain and I presume it's all the medications.


Shirley 22:47

And they say it can take up to five years to recover from it.


Jan 22:51

Oh goodness. Okay.


Shirley 22:52

So I'm looking forward to that not


Jan 22:55

Well, you know, we've done this whole interview without taking a break and I'm going to publish it without a break. It's been so kind of you to share your journey and open up and I know everyone is praying for you. My church prays for you every week. They always want to know how Shirley is doing? How is Shirley doing? so I


Shirley 23:16

Oh, that's so sweet.


Jan 23:17

Yeah. So I always need an update by like Saturday afternoon every week, if you would, please.


Shirley 23:22

OK, I'll try to keep that in mind.


Jan 23:24

Well we pray for you in various Sew Powerful meetings, and I pray for you on my own and I think about you all the time. As you know I'm getting ready to move and to our listeners. I'm going to be five minutes away from Shirley's house, so I'm very excited to move into her neighborhood. Anyway, okay, well, Shirley, we're praying for your full and rapid recovery. We pray the next few weeks go smoothly and that the doctor is able to do some great surgery for you here soon and get this part of your life behind you so that you can go back to making Sew Powerful purses for us.


Shirley 24:04

Thank you. We're sew powerful.


Jan 24:06

We are so powerful. You are so powerful. Thank you for your time today. We will talk soon.


Shirley 24:12

Thank you, Jan.


Jan 24:14

Alrighty. Bye bye.


Jan 24:15

Bye bye.


Jan 24:19

If what you've heard today inspires you to want to make a difference, I urge you to explore the Sew Powerful website at www.Sew that's SEWPOWERFUL dot ORG. The website has great information about the organization. It's where you can download the free purse patterns or even make a donation. We hope you will join us again next week when we bring you another Sew Powerful story. Thanks for listening. Now, go out and have a Sew Powerful day.


Jan Cancila has been making purses for Sew Powerful since 2014. She serves the organization as Director, Global Volunteerism, the Area Manager for Shows and Events-Mid/South USA and as the Houston Regional Coordinator. She was a public speaking major at Hanover College and holds an MBA from Our Lady of the Lake University. Jan had a 25-year career with The Coca-Cola Company before owning and operating a linen and party rental business in Houston. She is married with two grown sons, a lovely daughter-in-law and two remarkable granddaughters. Jan’s published work includes more than 100 online articles for Reach Jan with comments or suggestions at