Cancer survivor plans to walk in Relay for Life

Published May 1, 2015 in The Natchez Democrat (Photo by Sam Gause

NATCHEZ — It’s rare to see Sandra Stokes sit down. Between altering pageant gowns and hemming suit pants, you might think she has thread and needles for fingers.

Without a blink, she recognizes every customer who walks into her Homochitto Street business.

However, she’s let a few names slip lately.

“Chemo brain is a real thing,” said Stokes, the owner of San-Jay Creations. “It’s very frustrating.”

Stokes was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2014 during a regular checkup. She had no idea it was coming.

“It was a huge blow,” she said. “I had no symptoms, no anything.”

Within a week of receiving the diagnosis, she had a biopsy, which revealed the “little white dots” Stokes said she will never forget.

“They were cancer cells,” she said. “I had no lump, no mass, no anything. But the white dots were everywhere.”

Surprisingly, Stokes said chemotherapy treatment and regaining her strength weren’t her biggest obstacles.

It was stepping away from her true passion, her work.

Stokes may be best known in the community as the hands behind almost every hoop skirt that’s graced the City Auditorium stage of the Historic Natchez Tableaux. For more than 40 years, she has altered, hemmed — or in some cases, made from scratch — countless pageant gowns.

Stokes also has a heavy hand in making elaborate costumes for Mardi Gras parades.

She jokes that some years a green dress on a mannequin — with dashed hem lines and measuring tape pooling at the bottom — served as her family’s Christmas tree.

“It got bigger than I could have ever imagined,” Stokes said of San-Jay’s, which started in the living room of her Natchez home.

In 1978, Stokes officially opened San-Jay’s, becoming Natchez’s unofficial seamstress.

Since then, her family has expanded to include a long list of local customers — customers who have helped Stokes cope during a difficult time.

After getting a mastectomy in July and finishing treatment in December, Stokes said she is still working to get back to her previous high-speed work gear.

“Not a day passed that someone didn’t come by here just to encourage me or check up on me,” Stokes said with a smile. “One of my customers even made me a stool so I didn’t have to stand as much.”

Jenny Robinson, a mother of three who moved to Natchez in June, said she’s only known Stokes briefly. But in that brief time, Robinson said she’s seen first-hand Stokes’ unwavering dedication to her craft.

“She always goes above and beyond,” Robinson said. “It’s obvious that her customers are number one.”

Kallie Hopkins, a former Natchez resident who now lives in Missouri, said Stokes was the first friend she made when she moved to Natchez.

“Whenever I’m back in town, I always come by San-Jay’s to see my friend,” Hopkins said fondly, adding that it was Stokes who made her wedding dress.

Another longtime friend of Stokes, Patsy Collins, spent an entire night by Stokes side after her mastectomy.

“She kicked James, my husband, out of the hospital and told him to go home and get some rest,” Stokes said with a laugh. “She spent the whole night with me, crawled up right next to me.”

It was strong support like Collins’ that Stokes said aided in her recovery, and got her back on her feet.

Recently declared cancer free, Stokes said she hopes to shine a light on other local cancer survivors and offer support during this year’s Miss-Lou Relay for Life.

Stokes, along with a few of her closest friends, will proudly walk in this year’s Relay.

“As long as I have my family, customers — and most importantly, God — I have no fear,” Stokes said.