In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, meet Jen Houweling, a self-described “Mama bearin, yoga livin, peds nursin, travel wanderlustin, cancer ass kickin, mofo warrior” who was diagnosed with ER+, PR+, HER2+, grade 3, stage 2, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma on May 31st, 2016. Read on as Jennifer shares her touching and inspiring story.
Jen, you have been through so much in the past few months and years: weight loss, illness… Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your journey?
It was on our family trip to Barbados in February 2015 that something sort of snapped for me. I was utterly exhausted, overweight and had truly been burning from both ends. Here I was, a wife, a mother to three competitive athlete daughters, a full-time night working registered nurse in pediatric emergency, a people-pleaser, and over-scheduler. You know the type. I had completely lost myself, lost what filled up my soul and forgot what true love was. I knew something needed to drastically change. So began my quest for balance.
Once home, my eldest daughter asked me to attend a yoga class with her. Just the idea of going made me teary. What did I possibly have to offer a yoga mat? I literally could not even touch my toes and certainly didn’t fit anything Lulu. But I went. And in that class, something magical happened. Breath by breath, I started connecting with myself in a way I never had. I went back, day after day after day.
Within weeks I noticed a shift within me. I started saying “no” more. No to pizza, no to things I didn’t want to do and no to that negative talk inside our own heads. I stopped popping Advil for headaches and losing my cool at the drop of a hat. I started to show myself some grace, some true kindness, and you know what? That kindness started to surround me. My husband got softer, my kids became calmer and my coworkers more patient. It was as if we were all going to yoga together. Weird, but true. Be the change, I guess.
And the weight loss… in the process, I lost 85 pounds. All on my yoga mat, one sun salutation at a time. More mindful eating helped too but I still ate totally normally. The more my soul was full of joy, the less I needed food to fill me up. I was never hungry for food… I was hungry for balance.
Following your breast cancer diagnosis in May 2016, you got a double mastectomy, and you are currently going through chemotherapy. How did losing your breasts and your hair change your relationship with your body?
Ah, this is a tough one. I had always had large breasts. Larger than most. That was until yoga. Finally, finally, I was in a body that felt strong and healthy. I didn’t have that self-hate thing going on anymore. I believe it was because of my weight loss that I was able to palpate my own lump while laying in bed at the beginning of May 2016.
Losing my breasts is still very fresh. The surgery itself was actually decided upon by my medical team. This was not my choice, although I did finally agree it was the best approach to the diagnosis. Now, here I am. I’m left with a huge uneven looking scar that stretches straight across my chest. I have no feeling at all from armpit to armpit. My strength, range of motion and overall appearance is totally different. None of my clothes fit, I feel naked without a bra under a shirt and yet I have no idea what to wear. This is a brand new body in so many ways. From yoga, from cancer… from losing my breasts.
So my body and I are getting to know each other. We are in the early weeks of dating. I can see the pros of having no breast tissue. Awesome for yoga and certain fashions that a large chested lady could never wear. But yes, I miss my reflection in the mirror, my full physical strength and my peace of mind. This scar is a constant reminder of a battle I’m still fighting and will fight in some form for the rest of my life.
Breasts are a big part of a woman’s sexuality. How do you feel now about your own body, your sexuality, your intimate relationships?
Ahhh, another good one. Yes, breasts are a huge part of what make a woman a woman. They were a huge part of me. Huge on many levels. I was always called “Estro-Jen Bomb” growing up because my breasts were so big. From breastfeeding to sexy lingerie, breasts are beautiful. And fun! Mine were far from perfect but they were mine. I do miss them. My husband of 20 years is a boob man. I know he misses them too. Being still so new, we are navigating our way through this subject together. I have gone to buy extra padded bras and fake it, but the issue is much different when you face your partner in bed with nothing but a scar. This will take time, hard metal work and far more healing time than a simple scar.
You are a pediatric nurse; you will be going back to work soon. Do you think the way you do your job will change after getting your cancer diagnosis, being on the patient’s chair after being a caregiver for so many years?
I am SO excited to go back to work. Most registered nurses do not work in a germ filled emergency room while in chemotherapy, but I need to. Being away from the work I love and the coworkers I consider family has been very hard for me. Working with sick children and their families gives me perspective, a deep sense of meaning and challenges me on every level. I will be taking extra precautions with masking, gloving, and only working once my own blood values show it to be safe.
I hope I can walk around the unit with my bald head, breast-less body and central line still in place… with a deep sense of knowing. Knowing how much my job DOES make a difference to these patients and their families. I will look into the eyes of my febrile oncology patient and understand exactly where they are. I will know what they need in a way I never did before. It will be my absolute honour to nurse them.
Your motto is “Nothing is stronger than love”, and you have your “Army of love” following you and supporting you. Are there days where you don’t believe anymore?
I would be lying if I haven’t had dark moments of doubt. Moments where I shake with terror. Moments I cannot catch my breath. The idea of losing this battle and leaving my girls (ages 8, 12, 14) without a mother, my husband a widow, is too much to bare. But in those moments, something always reminds me of my army of love. Some message is sent, some song comes on, some bit of kindness occurs and a calmness comes over me. It is in those simple and beautiful moments that the terror fades away and I find true peace. I guess that is the power of love. It IS stronger than anything. Because of my belief in love, I know I can and will win this war.
Where do you find the courage and strength to believe and fight?
Hands down, love. When you love your life and everyone in it as much as I do… fighting is the only way through. I have literally an army of warriors worldwide that are in the trenches with me, every single day. Together we fight. I could not do this without them.
What advice would you give to the friends and family of someone who just got a cancer diagnosis, or to people in general who want to be an ally and fight for the cause?
I’m in no way an expert, I only know my way. Some days it feels right, some days it feels wrong. But in the end… we just keep plowing ahead. I know what has worked and what hasn’t worked for myself and those I deeply care about. I would hate to assume my way was the only way… But if I had to give any advice, breathe. Just breathe. Try to take it all a breath at a time. Don’t get ahead of yourself and don’t beat yourself up for the past. Stay present and stay with your breath. See, yoga saved my life!
Prevention is the only way for the future. We have seen breast cancer rates double in the last 50 years. Now 1 in 9 Canadian women. I am involved in a huge provincial study called the Amber Study. Looking at all sorts of factors from diet to physical activity and how they relate to breast cancer and recovery rates. I have done an enormous amount of research since my diagnosis and I am convinced of a few things. Diet and our immune systems play a huge role in this puzzle. I would advise all women of all ages to be the driver of their own health care train. Get proactive and prevent these illnesses before they even start. Eat raw rainbow coloured foods, cut the sugar, sleep more, laugh more and get on a yoga mat!
You are a devoted yogi. How does yoga help you on your way back to health? How does your lifestyle influence your recovery? What changes have you made to your everyday habits?
My yoga practice was forced to deepen in many different ways during this experience. I was a month away from completing my 200-hour yoga teacher training course when I was diagnosed and had to withdraw from the course. I was devastated over this. In fact, my double mastectomy took place the day before my 43rd birthday and the week I was supposed to graduate from Yoga Teacher Training. So hard. But, in that darkness, I found new light. I deepened my meditation and pranayama (breathing) practices. I had to take 7 weeks away from my physical practice which was very hard but perhaps needed. It made me look at how I can live yoga rather than just do yoga. I worked on immunity boosting through diet and breath work. I started researching more natural alternatives to work in harmony with modern medicine. PREVENTION! I started eating a mostly vegan diet, painting, diary keeping, dancing, gardening, being still and forgiving. I started to live yoga, not just do yoga.
What have you learned about yourself through this whole journey?
I’m the luckiest unlucky girl I know and nothing, absolutely nothing is stronger than love.
Congratulations to Jen & the Houweling’s Hooters for raising $5560 on October 2nd at the 2016 CIBC Run for the Cure!
Follow Jen’s journey on Instagram.