UPDATE: Browning was told she could keep her job, Jo-Ann Stores, Inc., told NBC4 on Saturday morning. Read more here.
In her more than two decades helping customers at Jo-Ann craft stores, 60-year-old Deborah Browning earned multiple commendations for her work.
She loved her job at the Jo-Ann in Redlands, and before that she had worked at a location in San Bernardino. She said she started with a division of the craft store company in 1990 in Washington state.
"I love to sew, I just love it. And I love helping people learn how," Browning said.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a year ago, Browning continued to come into work while she was receiving chemotherapy treatments. She wore a bandana on her head to cover her hair loss.
Browning worked until mid-March, when she could no longer function in the job.
Then, while still on company-approved medical leave in November, Browning found herself summarily dismissed by Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft stores in a form letter.
She was heartbroken. She had hoped to make it to 25 years with the company.
"I was so close," Browning said.
Speaking from her Highland home on Friday, Browning recounted a story that she first told to her local newspaper, the Redlands Daily Facts.
In March, after she began medical leave, Browning endured brutal months of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
Even when she wasn't working, she would go into the store on Lugonia Avenue. Her job, she said, was not about earning money.
"Even though I'm not working, if a customer walks by and looks a little lost, I'll go, 'Can I help you? Did you need to find something?'" Browning said.
Over the summer, doctors found a second cancer in her lungs. She had surgery and got an extension of her 26-week medical leave.
But in late September, she got a letter from her employer saying if she did not return by Nov. 3, they would consider her having voluntarily resigned.
Her doctor wrote to Jo-Ann's, saying Browning would not be able to work until late February. An earlier letter from her doctor explaining Browning's condition had ensured the first extension.
On Nov. 12, Browning got another letter from Jo-Ann's stating, "We have reviewed your documentation and have denied your request."
It told her she was no longer a Jo-Ann employee.
The letter said she was terminated as of Nov. 9, and said she could apply for another job at a Jo-Ann store once she was able to work again.
Reading the letter on Friday, she teared up.
"What would I say to them? I would like my job back, please, when I'm able to go back to work," Browning said. "Hopefully, everything's going to be all done by February and at the end of February I can go back to work."
A spokeswoman for Jo-Ann stores said in an emailed statement that the company could not comment specifically on Browning's case.
"Personal matters impacting our team members are treated with a high degree of confidentiality. Therefore, we will not comment on the situation out of respect for the employee involved," Margaret Skinner, director of corporate communication, wrote.
Another spokeswoman told the Redlands Daily Facts that Browning's case was being reviewed.
For now, Browning is believed to be cancer-free, but she has several more weeks of treatment to ensure her return to good health.
"I want to go back to work," she said. "I have so many friends out there."