after battling cancer, family loss
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — December 3, 2001 — Sharon Terry of Riverside is not your typical student. She’s about to complete her first semester at the University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus. She’s 51 years old.
“I never grew up,” says the modern day pixie with a Peter Pan-ish lust for life. The mother of two and grandmother of four hopes to major in theater and work with children. “Kids are free, they don’t have the inhibitions adults have.”
The URI student’s zeal and energy were put to an extreme test in 1990. That’s when she went for a free breast screening offered to minority women. She was concerned about a lump. Unlike other lumps that had been subject to biopsies in the past, this one proved to be cancerous. When she heard the news, she cried and when she stopped, she began again. She recalls walking into the treatment clinic. “It looked like death to me,” she says. “I wanted to get back into living. I decided then that I was strong and that I was going to beat it.”
Her son John drove her to chemotherapy on his motorcycle, her fur coat flapping in the breeze. “You’ve gotta fight in whatever way works for you,” she says. “Cancer’s not a death sentence, it’s just a wake up call. The three most important things in the battle are.. .attitude, attitude, and attitude.”
Terry has applied the lessons she learned from having cancer to life. “I turn negatives into positives,” she says. “If something goes wrong that I can’t fix, I do something else.” For example, she was president of JazzMasters, a nightclub in Providence. When Terry and her partners didn’t see eye to eye and the club folded, she moved to Atlanta and founded the Small Fry Day Tour, a tour of the Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport for inner-city pre-schoolers. “The kids lived right in Atlanta, but had never been to the airport. If children don’t see it, it doesn’t exist for them.”
With 30 children and chaperones in tow, Terry boarded the train each Friday to visit the airport. The children were able to observe the arrival and departure of airplanes, share in a police K-9 department demonstration, get their picture taken with a Delta Airlines pilot and receive Delta “wings.”
Terry returned to Rhode Island this year because both of her parents are now terminally ill.
Terry is familiar with loss. Many family members are gone. “I was raised with six brothers and three sisters,” she said, noting that many of them were part of a family construction business called Isom Brothers Construction. She was president. They poured concrete for slabs and sidewalks, did caulking and waterproofing for Women & Infants Hospital, the Convention Center, Hasbro Children’s Hospital and other major projects.
“Five died within two years from drugs or AIDs. I hate what drugs do to people,” she says quietly.
College is a break from her caregiving duties. She gets high grades, particularly in her interpersonal communications class. “I tell stories that are real,” she says with a wink matched by a gleaming smile. “They are all part of my journey.”
She finds URI’s Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Continuing Education at the URI Providence campus receptive to continuing education students. She has always wanted an education and was one of the few in her family to earn a high school diploma, walking from the Roger Williams project to Central High School each day. “I remember thinking that school was my way out of poverty,” she says.
Now she has her sites set on helping children. “I have the energy and I have to give back. Kids have to know that there’s a beautiful world out there, but they also have to know it’s serious, too.”
College will give her the credentials she needs to create programs and plays aimed for the younger set.
“I probably always had it in me but when you survive cancer, I think you become the person you’re really supposed to be,” she says.
(The Board of Directors of the Pacific West Cancer Fund gave URI a $1,500 scholarship this fall to assist student(s) who have survived cancer. Terry is one of the students who came forward to talk about her experiences in hopes of encouraging others.)
For Information: Jan Wenzel, 401-874-2116