Sister Act: Sewing, Baking, & Bonding for Melanoma

By Vallerie A. Malkin

Sheryl Dalton, Susan Torgerson, Sandra Bliss, Sarah Stalmack, and Stacy Torgerson, are five sisters who have been joined at the hip since they were born.

“I hope you noticed that Dad named us all with ‘S’,” says Sandra, the third-born sister, who goes by Sandy.

Growing up, they were the Torgersons, daughters of Claire “Torgy” and Shirley, two strong-willed, hard-working, family-oriented people with Nordic roots and a close marriage. Torgy was from Iowa with Norwegian parents and Shirley was from Minnesota with Danish parents. There were seven Torgersons, and they would have been a family of eight had their brother, Glenn, not died in infancy.

Torgy and Shirley raised the family in Michigan, and all five sisters live there now, physically and emotionally close to one another.

Sadly, Torgy died April 25, 2015 of melanoma after a six-year-long battle. Heartbroken, Shirley followed him a year later: “My mother passed December 12, 2016 of a lonely, broken heart,” says Sandy.

Fighting like a Viking

Looking back over her father’s illness, Sandy recalls how confused everybody was by the diagnosis. She could not recall ever seeing her father without a long-sleeved shirt and jeans on.

“Dad had a psoriasis condition that he did not want people to see,” says Sandy. “We all thought, ‘Dad, how is this possible?’”

Torgy reminded his family that as a young man he had bared his skin to the sun all day long as a construction worker. Curiously, however, the melanoma had appeared on a part of his body that never saw the light of day: the bottom of his left foot. It is a rare type of melanoma, explains Sandy.

Torgy had noticed what looked like a blood blister a year before, but he thought it was from riding his bike. After a heart attack, he had taken up cycling, stopped drinking, and quit smoking, all in an attempt to “repair his heart.”

When Shirley discovered the mole on her husband’s foot, she pressed him to see a doctor. Concerned, the doctor referred him to a dermatologist, who took a biopsy. He was diagnosed with melanoma.

The melanoma was embedded so deep in his foot that the surgeon had to perform a skin graft from his right thigh to close the excision.

Sandy recalls that her father was 100 percent committed to getting well and had ‘major willpower’: “Dad was an incredible fighter. He listened to every single doctor and did whatever they told him to do, he said, ‘Let’s go!’”

Torgy had 25 skin lesions removed over the course of his illness. One surgery revealed cancer in the lymph nodes in his groin. “The doctor said, ‘I can’t touch this, it’s too deep.’” Then he developed an adenocarcinoma in his lung, though they were able to remove it.

His fighting spirit and joie de vivre informed how his daughters supported him throughout his illness. They moved their parents to Sheryl’s home because it was closest to the hospital. Sandy, her sisters, and her mother tried to accompany him to every surgery, scan, and doctor’s appointment. He endured many rounds of ipilimumab, as well as radiation to his groin, explains Sandy, and they tried to be there for each.

During his illness, the family vowed to make the best of the time their father had left. Sheryl took him traveling to Norway. Susan brought him on a trip to Ireland with her and her daughter. They worked both trips around his treatment schedule.

Torgy lost his battle with melanoma in April of 2015, at the age of 75.

“He put up a heck of a fight,” says Sandy. “Yeah, he was a trooper.” As she talks about her dad, a Monarch butterfly appears and hovers nearby. She explains why this is significant: After their mother’s death the following year, also at 75, the sisters held a memorial service wherein they released Monarch butterflies into the sky. Ever since, Sandy has received random visits from a Monarch butterfly. “Oh, I’m gonna cry,” she says.

Endings and reunions

Sandy thinks her mother died a year later from the grief of losing her best friend. “Mom and Dad did everything together,” she explains. The young couple was set up on a blind date and married six months later; they moved to Michigan, where Torgy worked as a floor installer and Shirley “popped out babies.” When her youngest was in kindergarten, Shirley began working with Torgy.

“They lived their life basically together and they did every single thing together,” says Sandy. “They worked together, they visited bars, they went camping, they went boating.” After Torgy died, Shirley lost interest in socializing and became withdrawn. Finally, her health deteriorated. In 2016 she stopped eating, suffered renal complications, and was put into hospice: “She just wanted to be with Dad.”

Life after Mom and Dad

Now in their 50’s (to be exact, Sheryl is the eldest at 58, Susan is 55, Sandy is 53, Sarah is 51, and Stacy is about to turn 50) the five sisters are closer than ever. Collectively they have taken up the torch to find a cure for the disease that took their father’s life and broke their mother’s heart.

This year the Torgerson sisters joined forces and attended the KDB Melanoma 5k Run/Walk at beautiful Kensington Metro Park in Milford, Michigan.

In advance of the 5k walk, Sandy, her youngest sister, Stacy, and her 6-year-old granddaughter, Willow, crafted a stunning quilt in Torgy’s honor, sold the raffle tickets at a bake sale at Stacy’s work, and drew the winner’s name at the walk.

Sandy took up quilting in 2015 and then taught her granddaughter, Willow, and her sister Stacy.

Planning for the quilt took six months and creating it took two. The colors used at the four corners are black and white, symbolizing melanoma and lung cancer, respectively. The center block depicts the melanoma ribbon. There are six prairie stars representing the five Torgerson daughters and one son.

The quilt’s border depicts butterflies to represent her mother and flowers for her father. As a person who is moved by symbolism, Sandy explains why she chose flowers for her dad:

The day Dad passed away he was surrounded by his family, recalls Sandy. The television was on and it had frozen at a commercial with a picture of roses and the words, ‘Take time to smell the roses.’” Her father was always trying to get the girls who were always busy to slow down and take time to appreciate life, so the message on the TV made perfect sense.

“Our wonderful family misses our parents but we keep them nearby by raising awareness about melanoma and showing people what they can do to prevent the disease,” says Sandy.

Never a family of wallflowers, a few of the sisters decided to make a statement at the walk by showing up with umbrellas (it was a perfectly sunny day) to drive home a message about sun protection.

After hearing the sisters’ story, the winner decided to donate the quilt back to Stacy so that it “stays in the family.” They are still deciding what to do with the quilt that will be meaningful.

Moving on against a backdrop of memories

Sandy is a busy lady. She has a husband, Tommie, whom she calls “the love of her life,” a daughter, and two grandchildren. She is a medical office coordinator for a general surgeon.

She is also vice president for the local chapter organization for the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) in Flint, renowned across the world.

For 24 years Sandy has made time for the “Annual Sister Retreat.” While the ladies don’t travel far (they like staying in their home state), the idea is to focus on their friendship without distraction.

“No other family members, husbands, or children are allowed,” says Sandy. Each year they take turns planning where to go and arranging the activities.

The retreat usually has a nature component, says Sandy, because the family has always felt a connection to nature and had taken many family boating and hiking trips with their parents. For their sister excursions they have driven along the Great Lakes, built fires, hiked, and sometimes just looked at the sunset: “We’re very big on sunsets,” says Sandy. Other times they cook, craft, read, play games, or plan the next holiday celebration. Sometimes they just relax.

“Dad and Mom loved that we do this,” says Sandy.

Spreading the word and the love

Sandy is sure her parents would be proud of the work she and her sisters do to educate others about melanoma. When she talks about this, Sandy gets choked up: “I’m gonna cry again,” says Sandy, “but this is one of my passions.”

“I wanted to know other ways to support melanoma, and why, if melanoma numbers are going up every year, it is not as well-known as breast and lung cancers,” explains Sandy.

Sandy prepared an elaborate skin cancer presentation for May Mania, an event during Melanoma Awareness month for a group of 30 people. She talked about prevention and the importance of UV clothing, sunglasses, umbrellas, and sunscreen and the dangers of tanning beds.

Everything she does related to melanoma is in memory of her father and mother and what they went through. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” she says. “Get your skin checked!”

The sisters also wanted to raise money for research, so they participated in their first AIM walk this year.

It’s slow, but Sandy sees progress. Social media is getting the message out about sunscreen and she read that pavilions were being installed along some of the beaches and school playgrounds around the country so people could get out of the sun.

“My melanoma advocacy never rests,” says Sandy. “Dad raised us to enjoy nature, enjoy life, and get out there and get it. Our parents are very proud of us.”

“Our wonderful family misses our parents but we keep them nearby by raising awareness about melanoma and showing people what they can do to prevent the disease,” says Sandy.

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