Keeping the Stars in the Big Sky

Chicks N Chaps helped give Paula C the one-up on the Big C

“All the stars dropped out of the sky.”

It hits you—hard—when you’re looking into the bright eyes of the woman across from you who’s just used these words , “All the stars dropped out of the sky,” to describe what it felt like to be told that she had breast cancer. Even in her recollection, the words, “That’s when they told me I had cancer,” never escaped her lips. The stars falling from the sky had done that part.

Paula Crews is as Missoulian as anyone gets. She’s a mother to three boys, a wife, a small business owner, an active member of our community, and always ready to lend a hand in help. She totes her boys to and from school and their practices or tournaments and, on this particular night, buys a round of fries and onion rings and reopens a wound that hasn’t quite healed completely.

In the late summer of 2015 she became a fighter, someone battling the big C.

“My whole body melted…no star was aligned…I balled my eyes out first and foremost and then tried to gain my composure so I could get the story,” said Paula, noting her need to jot down foreign, scientific words that now had a way of describing something within her. Her husband was in Idaho supporting wild land firefighters and luckily within cell service when the call from Paula came through, delivering the news that her patch of rash-like skin on her chest had a new terrifying name.

Paula kept her news close to home, sitting down with her boys and relaying the information that was still new to her, describing herself in a way she’d never known before. She’d do the same thing just a few days later, editing her situation before her children to account for a mass that a MRI had detected in conjunction with her diagnosed patch of skin. This meant a whole new plan, one that meant these things: having to go through chemotherapy, choosing to have a double mastectomy, delving into deep lows, and surviving the demons she found there, like surviving a blood transfusion and then climbing back from the trenches through stints of radiation and Herceptin, which helped prevent potential spreading, and later physical therapy, to learn to live in her new skin that had changed patterns, making a maneuver like putting your hands behind your back nearly impossible.

“All the bad things that they talk about—it all happened, and [the chemo] was every 21 days and I hated everything about it,” said Paula. “When I went for my treatment they’d put me in a corner because I had so many visitors, so many visitors that we were usually in trouble. We were loud, totally obnoxious.”

For six rounds over the course of several months, Paula’s corner party of friends and family were constant and cheerful, baking treats in the shape of breasts and balloons, too, and smiling for photos, filling the room with the energy it needed.

“During chemo, [I’d] always been in pretty much control of my life with the respect of always having a good bearing of what I was doing every day. I had a plan. I felt pretty much in control. Chemo was the one time in my life where I struggled the most in the respect of, you’re paying for poison,” she said, “and then all of a sudden, that thing you’re actually paying to receive is doing things to your body that you as a person have no control over.”

There were moments of light, though, the way the sun hits us just right in the middle of a passing storm. Shortly after the chemo began taking its toll on Paula, she realized her family’s annual tradition of taking their Christmas photo was not going to be the fun family affair that it had always been.

“I was going to lose my hair,” said Paula. “It was a shell-shocker for my boys. I think it was a shell-shocker for me but my boys were amazing. My family was amazing.”

She and I laughed through a series of photos that told the story of family and love, not the one of chemotherapy or cancer. Paula, amid a tangle of her boys’ arms, with her husband tall and steady behind her taking part in its unfolding. Paula, eyes squeezed shut as chunks of her hair—cut by her boys—fell to the floor. Paula, posing in a white sleeveless shirt with her boys and husband all dressed up as characters unlike themselves, complete with wigs and belly shirts and mohawks. Paula, teary-eyed as her husband buzzed away the remaining hairs.

“I survived because of my husband and my three kids, because in the morning they still had to get up and go to school…I would still drive them to school, I would still pick them up, go to their basketball games,” said Paula.

It was family, headbands, and Shirley Temples that kept the world spinning, lighting up a starless sky once again.

Where we sat, beneath the artful trusses of Lolo Peak Brewery in Paula’s community of Lolo, was home to her end-of-chemo party and fundraising night, hosted by Kailey White, Paula’s niece who selflessly pulled out of college to run Paula’s small business while she was fighting the good fight, and who found a calling to help those like her aunt in times of trouble with the nonprofit, Chicks N Chaps, a country-wide organization devoted to those battling breast cancer.

She, Paula and Paula’s sister are now involved with the organization. Paula helps on a committee and encourages other fighters where and when she can, offering the chance to share her story or shed light on difficult parts of the journey to recovery.

Her first interaction with Chicks N Chaps was in attending the women’s night at the Missoula rodeo the year before she was diagnosed. It was a night behind the shoots with family, friends, and strangers—a night that held the promise of our community’s commitment to each other and the health of our sisters. Ironically, Paula’s small business had donated a few items back before she was diagnosed, contributing to the funds that make the financial burden a bit lighter for those in need.

“We did a fundraiser at the store Real Deals, so a percentage of our sales for that whole weekend went toward Chicks N Chaps. And during their auction, this past year, we bid on things. We definitely knew at the time how much the money helped us. [I thought] this might be my place to truly and honestly make everything work,” said Paula.

“Since my niece did a phenomenal fundraiser for me, we volunteered her to be on their committee to do fundraising and help with donations. It’s scary to admit but it’s amazing how the right word gets out there and the right people find out about certain things,” said Paula, chalking up an ironic web of connections to the magical way of the Missoula community.

Later that night, Paula looked to her boys, devouring their fries—their laughter getting lost in the steady climb of voices at the bar and surrounding tables—with the kind of love that comes from having seen stars fall from the sky, with the love of having survived.