WESLEY CHAPEL — Sandie Bricker likes to laugh. She looks for the funny in everything, even in some rather inappropriate places.
“I was in the hearse for my mother's funeral, and I just cracked up,” she recalls. “Something reminded me of her, and I was laughing in between the tears.”
Having a good sense of humor has translated into a prolific career for the Wesley Chapel writer. She carved out a niche in Christian publishing for romantic comedy — a genre that was barely on the radar screen when she started penning her light novels.
Then something not so funny happened to her.
Ten years ago, she was diagnosed with Stage 1 uterine cancer and Stage 3 ovarian cancer.
“That was a mood killer,” she says.
In the next year, while she battled the disease with treatments and drugs, the laugh-out-loud Sandie went “radio silent” as she calls it. But when she finally emerged, something good came of it.
Now she's using her own experience as a teaching moment to enlighten others about the disease and to give hope. She's doing it with her just-published novel, which is set in Tampa and features real-life characters Sandie met at an ovarian support group.
When Sandie, 55, says she's wanted to be a writer her entire life, she means it.
“Since birth!” she says emphatically. “It was always my dream.”
She wrote her first short story in sixth grade and journaled all through high school. But it wasn't books that caught her fancy. The Ohio native calls herself a “TV baby,” growing up with sitcoms and cinema. So she set her sights on script writing, and headed to Los Angeles to go to film school.
While devoting her spare time to her craft — and publishing three books for the teen market — Sandie worked for more than a decade as a personal assistant and a publicist for soap opera actors. Then came the call from her widowed mother.
She was gravely ill and needed some help.
“I used to tell my mom, 'Retire to anywhere but Florida. I don't want to end up there.' But next thing you know, I'm heading across the country,” she says.
Sandie took on a new role when she arrived in the Tampa Bay area: caregiver for her mom.
Doctors thought her mother would only live a few months. Sandie planned to stay until the end, then get right back to Southern California. But her mother rallied, and Sandie had nearly four years with her.
“It was such a blessing to get that extra time with her,” she says. It also meant this was not a temporary move, and she had to rebuild her life here. She got a corporate job as an editor and began building a network of writer friends. At her mother's urging, Sandie put aside script writing and concentrated on romance and suspense novels, getting several published.
In spring 2003, soon after her mother's death, Sandie decided it was time to break into the inspirational market. After all, she had been a Christian for 30 years, and didn't feel that genre was a true reflection of its readership.
“All the women characters were prim and proper with lace collars and pumps, always going to church. That is so not me,” she says. “If I felt that way, I knew other Christians felt the same way.” She wanted characters that were more believable, story lines that were more relevant.
Sandie's faith tells her there are no coincidences. In putting together her first book proposal for a Christian publisher, she began researching various diseases to give to one of the characters. She zeroed in on ovarian cancer, and started researching it.
With a creeping sense of dread, she realized she was experiencing all of the symptoms associated with the disease.
Dubbed “the silent killer” because women rarely realize they have it until it's too late, Sandie quickly made an appointment with a doctor. Within three weeks, she got the diagnosis for both uterine and ovarian cancer.
The Funny Girl shut down.
“I was terrified,” she recalls. “Terrified of handling what was ahead, and terrified I would be doing this alone, since my mom had just died. I felt like a zombie.”
Instead of getting closer to God in her most trying time, she felt disconnected. She continued working to pay the bills, but stopped writing. She just didn't have the heart.
It wasn't until her fourth week of treatment, while lying on a table with nurses buzzing all around her, that a Scripture came into her heart — Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Suddenly, she felt safe and secure. That single passage would lift her spirits and get her through the recovery process.
When she was pronounced cancer-free, she wasn't surprised.
“I knew he was sending me a message that day,” Sandie says. “God has been with me all along. I just needed to listen to him.”
And she got her mojo back. She resumed her writing and efforts to break into the Christian market. Christian publisher Summerside Press responded, with just one caveat: Drop the suspense and concentrate on humor.
“They told me that my emails cracked them up,” Sandie says. With that, she found a niche that suited her perfectly.
In 2009, Sandie went to a book signing in Tampa for “Sit Still … and Let Your Nail Polish Dry,” a humor-based Christian devotional of essays of real-life issues she had penned with three other writers. They affectionately subtitled their book “a Devo for Women on the Go.”
In an interview with The Tampa Tribune to advance the event, Sandie mentioned her ordeal with ovarian cancer and how a portion of the book's proceeds would go to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.
Among the dozens of women who showed up for the signing were members of Ovacome, a local group for patients and survivors of ovarian cancer that provides support, awareness and education. The group meets twice monthly — at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and in downtown St. Petersburg.
Sandie had never heard of the group, though her treatment took place at St. Joseph's. Ovacome's support is just what she needed most in that very dark time in her life, she says..
“How on God's planet could I have missed you?” she asked the women. They formed an instant bond. From that moment on, the author became an Ovacome advocate, building friendships with its members, speaking at meetings and promoting its services through her connections.
Meanwhile, her writing career got a big boost when Abingdon Press tapped Sandie to write a romantic comedy series based on a cast of characters at The Tanglewood Inn, a wedding-destination hotel in Roswell, Ga. Readers fell in love with the story line and its two main characters, Jackson and Emma Rae.
“I'm lucky there are people out there who 'get' my humor and support my books,” she says. “I wanted to bring something different to the Christian market, and apparently, people were hungry for it.”
Now Ovacome is about to get national exposure.
When Abingdon Press asked Sandie to be a contributing author to “Quilts of Love,” a series based on memory quilts, she balked big-time.
“Hello? Have you not met me? Because, really, quilts?” was her first reaction. All she knew about quilts is that she had overpaid for two of them at a craft show. But her editor had something else in mind.
Use your experience with ovarian cancer to develop the story. You can put your own “pain to page” for parts of the story; the rest can have your signature humor.
The more Sandie thought about it, the more she liked it. She went to Ovacome's president, Kim Snyder, and asked for permission to use the group as the novel's backdrop. She also asked if she could use some of the real-life members as characters in the book.
“Getting ovarian cancer is a humbling and surreal experience,” says Snyder, 47, a Clearwater systems engineer who was diagnosed in February 2008. “If a book like this could impact even just one person, I was all for it.”
And Snyder had another reason for agreeing to the plan: If Sandie's work of fiction could weave in all the truths of dealing with the disease, it would be yet another way to educate people, which is a primary goal of Ovacome.
“If you just read the statistics, it's so scary,” she says. “The first and best advice I can give anyone is to not listen to everyone else. Just listen to your body and be proactive.”
The result of Sandie's work is “Raw Edges,” published this month.
The story centers around Grayson McDonough, a widower who lost his wife to ovarian cancer and is now raising their 9-year-old daughter, Sadie, on his own. When cancer survivor Annabelle Curtis begins to organize a memory quilt project for the Ovacome support group, her influence brings out the silly and fun side of the grieving daughter. She also helps the widower (romance alert!) find his way back to happiness and God.
Not only does Sandie use her fellow support group members, she also includes Tampa scene-setters: The Florida Aquarium, Channelside, Joy-FM radio, and of course, St. Joseph's.
Carole Martinez, 65, is a 10-year survivor and one of the characters in the book. Her experience reflects that ovarian cancer does not have to be a death sentence.
“My one wish when I got this was that I would live to see my daughter married,” says the retired Tampa educator.
With that wish granted, and getting to the five-year mark, Carole is a lot more confident about having a healthy future. Unfortunately, that's not the outcome for everyone. In all the years she's gone to Ovacome meetings, “I've made many friends who haven't made it. And you can't help but feel guilty at times. Why them and not me? This group gives me a chance to give back since I've been so fortunate.”
That's just how the author feels.
Taking on this project forced Sandie to deal with her own cancer experience in the best possible way: She got to write about it. Although some of her previous books included characters with her own qualities, “Raw Edges” allowed her to confront the pain she felt as a patient, and the joy she's experienced as a survivor.
Best of all, she's showing her gratitude to a support group that can make such a difference in a patient's life.
“I'm a pretty independent person, but the one thing I've learned more than anything, is that you can't walk alone,” she says. “You're supposed to reach out for help, and then comes the time that you return that. This is my time.”