'I had to prioritize my life'

Merlene Davis: Breast cancer survivor commits herself to others

Herald-Leader columnistOctober 11, 2011 

  • How To help

    God's Closet distributes gently used clothing to women who are entering the job market. The Purple Lunchbox is a non-profit breakfast, brunch and lunch catering service operated by women in treatment at Chrysalis House.

    For a Purple Lunchbox menu, visit Thepurplelunchbox.com. For more information, contact Sheila Taluskie at (859) 533-1945.

Sheila Taluskie doesn't sit still for long.

Her energy, that drive to help others, stems from how grateful she is for having survived breast cancer 21 years ago.

"I look at the breast cancer as a positive," Taluskie said. "I had to prioritize my life. Some things that seemed important before weren't important any more."

Taluskie is the no- nonsense job-readiness coordinator for Chrysalis House Inc., a non-profit substance-abuse treatment program for women. She also is executive director of God's Closet, a non-profit Chrysalis House partner that collects gently used career clothing and accessories, and redistributes those items to women entering the job market.

When the economy sank, Taluskie formed The Purple Lunchbox, a non-profit catering arm of God's Closet that gives employment opportunities to the women she trains.

"We just want to make enough money to produce good quality food and pay the women," she said. "It's catering with a cause."

Lisa Minton, executive director of Chrysalis House, appreciates Taluskie's commitment.

"Sheila Taluskie always goes the extra mile," said Minton. "She truly cares about the women and families we work with."

Taluskie's mission isn't too far from what she was doing before the cancer was diagnosed, when she was a personal shopper for a local department store. Matching appropriate outfits for employment or court appearances is something she has experience with.

She also has worked as director of volunteers for Hospice of the Bluegrass, which she said helped her make an informed decision when cancer was more feared.

"I had a little more open mind and a little more information," she said. "The radiologist found it in the very early stages, and I knew to meet with an oncologist as soon as I could."

Her diagnosis was confirmed shortly after Thanksgiving, but she chose to wait until after her birthday in January to undergo surgery. She chose a mastectomy with reconstruction in the form of a "free flap," she said

"That's when they take a piece of skin from the stomach and some fat and rebuild the breast," Taluskie said. "It was the best for me, and I have not had any problems."

She was in surgery for 16 hours and in the hospital for eight days.

As clinical as her approach to the cancer might sound, there were struggles. It was difficult to tell her four children and her husband and to come to grips with it herself.

What helped her, she said, was joining a support group soon being diagnosed. "You can get information confirmed by someone who knows what they are talking about," she said.

Now on the other side of her emotional journey, Taluskie has learned to concentrate on what really is important. In her job-readiness classes she teaches her "Five Wastes of Time," which she swears by since her diagnosis and survival:

1. Feeling sorry for yourself.

2. Blaming others for your problems.

3. Being angry at situations you cannot change.

4. Being angry at someone who has something you have, or don't have.

5. Gossip.

She simply will not entertain any of those. And that leaves time for her to focus on the women who need her the most. With those women, she tries to impart what she has learned from her bout with cancer: zero in on what is important and discard the rest.

That means any reason the women she works with might have to stay home and not go to work has to go through her.

"They have to be dead, dying or going to court," she said.

"Anybody who meets Sheila knows her compassion for these women," Minton said. "Personally, I find her a true inspiration."

The feeling is mutual.

"These women are so special to me, and the staff here is excellent," Taluskie said. "I see this as my mission."

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or mdavis1@herald-leader.com.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service