When your life suddenly takes a turn for the worse—and you are faced with a deadly diagnosis—what choice do you have other than to embrace your inner strength and move forward? Long-time fitness instructor, loving wife, and courageous mom of two Jennifer Smrz from Oakville, Ontario shares her heartfelt reflection about dealing with depression and breast cancer. Not only are we extremely honoured that she has agreed to share her experience on our platform, but we are truly in awe of her positivity through it all. Jenn’s detailed write-up provides a vivid picture of what she has dealt with physically, mentally, and emotionally; as well as how she continues to heal today.
Editor’s note: We often talk about RedLily® heroes and how much their experiences can change other people’s lives in an inspirational way. Well, Jenn’s story has touched all of us in a way that cannot be explained. She is a true hero inside and out—and has beat the odds several times over. Please take the time to read her incredible story of perseverance and purpose.
Let us know what you think. xo
“My Battle With Depression and Breast Cancer”
Hi, my name is Jenn and I have known the founder of RedLily® for 19 years. Our husbands went to high school together and we both started dating within a few months of one another. I have many fond memories of us at the cottage, New Year’s Eve, both our weddings, trip to Bahamas, many dinner parties, and numerous nights out.
Soon after our weddings, we started having children. We now both have two active, sporty boys, which makes it harder to find a free night to get together; and then Kerrie’s family moved to Colorado and our friendship drifted. Fortunately, this past fall, Kerrie had a wedding near Milton, and we were able to reconnect. Kerrie filled me in on all the exciting things she had been doing, especially the launch of her women’s storytelling platform. I was intrigued, however, not feeling ‘myself’ (stay tuned for a full explanation). I am excited she is following her passions and I want to support her any way I can.
And now for my story…
I can remember it vividly; it was just before Christmas 2015, 4 years ago. My husband was stressed at work and we were planning to go to our cottage for New Years. We had just completed a renovation up north and I was not sure what food staples were there from our last visit in August. Trying to organize Christmas, the packing and planning of all our cottage meals etc. I too, started to feel overwhelmed. Worrying, is not ‘new’ to me, and unfortunately, when I start to worry, I have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. At first, I was able to fall asleep but started waking up at 4 a.m., then 3 a.m. and then 2 a.m. You get the idea. It did not take long, before I was not able to fall asleep at all.
I went for a month, with limited sleep and many sleepless nights—which would affect anyone in their daily activities. At first, I continued to Instruct at Goodlife, consult as a Career Coach, drive my sons to hockey practices and games etc. Life continued, just the ability of sleeping, stopped! I can remember talking to my mom and her being concerned about me driving because I was always so tired. This continued until the second week in February, when things quickly took a turn for the worse.
I was feeling overwhelmed about everything from learning my fitness routines, about what I would cook for dinner to what to pack the kids for lunches. Things that normally would not phase me became big ordeals. Everything that I used to enjoy; working out, trying new recipes, planning gatherings, and baking became a chore. I could not make easy decisions or focus while reading or watching TV. Suspense and drama programs and books (which I love) became too violent to enjoy. I could not sit still and didn’t want to be left alone, yet I felt ‘out of place’ when around anyone other than my family.
Fortunately, another mom from the neighbourhood saw me dropping my sons at school one day and she recognized right away that I was not myself. Having grown up with a mom who suffered from anxiety and depression, she knew very quickly that I needed to see my doctor. So, I made an appointment for that afternoon. I told my doctor what I was going through and was hoping she would have given me something to help me sleep.
Unfortunately, she saw things very differently. She was not willing to prescribe a sleeping pill and instead wanted me to go on an anxiety/depression prescription. I did not believe that was the problem, how could I be depressed? I only worked part time, have a beautiful family, live in Oakville, two healthy boys, what could I be depressed about?
I filled the prescription but fought the idea and with it not improving my sleep right away, I was convinced it was something else. I just needed a good night’s sleep, not anxiety pills.
Unfortunately, my sleepless nights and overwhelming feelings of anxiety continued to the point that I had to take time off from Consulting and Fitness Instructing. I remember going into my walk-in closet and not being able to decide what to wear. Sounds ridiculous if you have never experienced anxiety or depression, but it was my new “normal” and it was horrible. I simply could not comprehend why I would be stressed or depressed, I should have been so happy with the life I had.
Fortunately, my sister in law was extremely supportive and helped me realize that I had a lot on my plate. I had two part-time jobs, volunteered at my sons’ school, both boys started rep hockey the fall of 2015, I made all our meals from scratch and took care of two homes (including our cottage).
Eventually, I started accepting the fact that I needed more than just help sleeping. However, I still resisted going on medication. (I don’t like taking Tylenol for a headache never mind needing a pill to make me feel like myself.)
It took some time…, but after a few months, my interest in eating, working out, and making meals started to come back again; and by the spring, I was sleeping much better, thankfully.
Not understanding anxiety/depression medications and wanting to get off my prescription as fast as possible, I stopped taking my prescription in late spring of 2017. Everything was back to normal and cottage season was upon us, my happy place! We had a great summer, entertaining friends and family on cottage weekends, vacationing for two weeks up north and instructing.
Labour Day came fast, my boys were back in school and our busy rep hockey season was in full swing. I returned to Career Consulting, after the slow season in the summer, and my husband and I were ‘divide and conquer’ between both boys’ activities and school events. I continued to feel good, enjoyed hockey tournament weekends, Thanksgiving, birthday parties, etc. Life was good!
A turn for the worse
Then one day in late November, I was on a Consulting assignment. I had not slept well the night before and just felt ‘off.’ I tried making an appointment for that same day with my doctor, but unfortunately, she had moved her office to another city. I spent the next few weeks trying to find a local doctor that was taking new patients. My restless sleeps continued, and I was starting to feel overwhelmed at little things again.
My confidence and decision-making ability decreased drastically. I finally found a doctor and explained my experience last winter and that I had not been able to sleep. She prescribed a new prescription and this time; I was happy to try it. I could not imagine going through the low moods that I had experienced eight months earlier. Fortunately, the pill seemed to work right away, and I got through Christmas, hockey playoffs, school functions, work assignments, and friends and family gatherings with my usual enjoyment and enthusiasm. But, once again in late winter, I mistakenly, weaned myself off my prescription… I was feeling better, after all.
Sadly, I hit a new low.
I quickly got in to see my doctor and she put me back on the same prescription and explained that anxiety and depression drugs require you to be on them for a minimum of six months, before you can even entertain coming off them completely. Unfortunately, after weeks of being on it, I still was not sleeping or feeling any better. I was not looking forward to going to the cottage, and I found packing and planning cottage weekends stressful. This was so unlike me!
I did not want to socialize with our neighbours or do any of the fun things, which was so unusual because I always enjoyed up north. I drifted from all my friends and although my boys were not toddlers anymore, they still needed me and did not understand why “mommy” was acting completely opposite to her usual personality. My doctor ended up doubling my doze and still after six weeks, I was feeling worse than ever. I could not help my boys with homework and practically followed my husband around the house. Needless to say, my entire family, including my parents and brother’s family, were affected and very concerned about my moods.
After what felt like forever, I started to feel better and then back to normal. Unfortunately, I did not learn my second lessen and I started to wean myself off, again!
In fairness, each time I noticed myself slipping in the wrong decision—there were stressful things that triggered me and I went right back on my medication. The reality is, I am prone to over worrying, restless sleeps, and depression, and it sucks. But acceptance is the first step to treatment. I had two more occurrences of feeling horrible over the next two years lasting 2-4 months each—not fun for me or my family and friends.
The ups and downs never stop
In May 2019, I was feeling great and looking forward to another season at our cottage. I probably should have mentioned earlier, that over the last year, I found a small marble size lump on my left breast. I went to my doctors several times and had ultrasounds too. Nothing alarming was ever found, no pain, no tenderness. I continued to keep an eye on it, then during my annual physical that April, I asked for a mammogram. I was booked within the week. I remember I was instructing and forgot to turn my phone off during my class. I quickly went over to turn it off and saw that it was Gamma Clinic.
I continued instructing but had a sinking feeling in my stomach. As soon as my class was finished, I called the clinic for my results. They said they needed me to come in for more images and I was rebooked within a few days and went for my second mammogram. Not fun for anyone who has not had the pleasure of experiencing it. I honestly do not know what is worse, having bigger boobs and having them squished or having little boobs and them trying to find something to squish!
My breast exams
After a very painful experience, the exam technician said I should meet her in the next room for an ultrasound. It felt like I was laying there being probed for hours. I was happy when I was driving home. Two days later, I got a call from my doctor who wanted to see me as soon as possible. During my appointment, she explained that a lump was found in my left breast. The marble size lump was smooshed in the machine, this was a different lump embedded close to my pectoral muscle. She scheduled me for a biopsy for two weeks later.
Without going into details, there were complications and I almost fainted from the experience. Fortunately, my mom was waiting in the reception area. She had to help get me dressed, since I couldn’t lift my arm and I felt dizzy. My appointment with the Oncologist was automatically booked for ten days later. The nurse told me not to be alarmed, as she said every patient who has a breast biopsy has a follow up appointment with an Oncologist. They did encourage me to bring someone to my appointment.
As you can probably guess, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 Breast Cancer on Tuesday May 28th. Both my husband and I were speechless and in disbelief. I am known for living a healthy, active lifestyle, so how could I get the Big C?
My surgery was booked for 2 weeks later on June 11th. After telling our boys, families and close friends, I truly was able put it out of my mind. I kept myself extra busy over those two weeks, and was out most evenings with friends or Instructing, had work assignments during the day, stocking up our freezer with easy meals. June 11th came fast, and I had mixed emotions; I was super nervous but also wanted to have the surgery to be ‘rid’ of the tumour asap. Surgery went well, my husband drove me home and even though I was heavily sedated. I had a pretty good evening and sleep.
Another terrifying diagnosis
The next day I had a Skype call with my surgeon. He explained that he removed the tumour and the five lymph nodes that had cancerous cells. He was pleased by how things went. The next twelve days, the discomfort, swelling and inability to use my left arm set in. Luckily, I am right-handed, but have you ever tried showering, blow drying your hair, or getting dressed without the ability of moving your arm higher than chest level?
Twelve days later, I was able to somewhat dress myself in oversized shirts and stretchy pants. On Monday June 23rd, we had a follow up appointment with my surgeon to go over the analysis of the tumour. We were shocked when we first were told I had breast cancer but to say we were blown away was an understatement after hearing the news that I had another small tumour and was booked for surgery less than 14 hours away on June 24.
Fortunately, my second surgery went well, and the recovery was much easier since they didn’t need to take out more lymph nodes.
It was the Tuesday of the last week of school, my son’s 12th birthday was on Thursday and I was heading up to our cottage to recover for two weeks with my boys. I certainly was limited to doing most of the things I usually do up north, but felt grateful, I had my cottage to escape to. I had two separate appointments: with both the Radiation and Chemo Oncologist. The Radiation Oncologist, who I met first, had no bed side manners and asked me when my next surgery was scheduled? My husband and I looked at each other and did not know how to respond. I said, “You know that I already had two surgeries: June 11 and 24th, right?.” He said, “Yes, but with the results of both surgeries and the location of the second tumour, you will need another surgery and likely a full mastectomy!”
I felt sick to my stomach and was confused, scared and mad at the way I was told. Fortunately, my appointment with the Chemo Oncologist went much better. He was personable, explained things without using jargon and said; “He will work with my surgeon so that everyone is on the same page. For now, he wanted me to focus on my treatments and get me through that successfully.” It was a Friday and we had friends coming to our cottage for the weekend. I remember crying for half the ride—the reality of the last seven weeks and the news of my treatment schedule was setting in. My chemotherapy was starting August 3rd, biweekly for four treatments and then weekly for 12 sessions. If all went well and on schedule, I would be done exactly a week before Christmas.
My first two treatments went better than expected.
I had both treatments on a Wednesday and then headed up to our cottage for a week’s holiday. The first week of school, I had my 3rd treatment and our week ended with both boys in hockey tournaments. Fortunately, my mom helped me with one son, while my husband coached my eldest son in another city. I was tired all the time and had trouble driving long distances, but otherwise,
I continued to instruct and do work assignments and my usual daily activities.
My brother and his wife were in Hawaii celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary and my mom was at their place with my nephews. I remember having trouble sleeping for a few nights in a row and then one night I was worrying so much, I did not sleep at all. The next morning, I was a wreck, sitting on my kitchen floor, feeling so overwhelmed that I could not think straight. I knew the signs and said to myself, “Here I go again, down the rabbit hole!” I made an appointment with my counsellor and doctor for later than week.
I was not sure why I was feeling this way, I had not changed my medication and four days ago, I seemed fine(?) Friends and family were saying, “Jenn, you are going through chemotherapy, lost your hair, have no energy… it is completely normal to get down.” I was in denial that the cancer influenced me. I felt I had been handling the news, my two surgeries, my treatments with grace. It did not take long for my anxiety and depression to hit an all-time low. My doctor needed to add an additional medication to help reduce my anxiety, over worrying and to try and get me some sleep.
I decided that I needed to take a medical leave from work, as I simply did not have the strength or motivation to prepare for my classes. I lost interest in eating, coupled with the chemo, and soon I was under 100 pounds.
Fortunately, my treatments were going well, and my body was reacting exactly how my Oncologist was hoping, it was my mental state that was concerning my friends and family. I missed a close friend’s 50th birthday party, Christmas parties and other social gatherings. I simply could not imagine trying to hold an intelligent conversation, I was embarrassed about how I looked and had no energy to make myself presentable.
Christmas was tough; from shopping, hiding our “Elf, Quinn” every night in a new spot, wrapping gifts, to trying to make it special for my boys! Fortunately, I started to feel better after New Year’s and each day, was more ‘myself!’ I started to cook nutritious, healthy meals, and started working out daily. It was humbling how much strength I had lost over the last three months of little physical activity, but it felt amazing to be moving again! I was so happy to be enjoying the things that make ‘me’ who I am; active, social, cook, mom, wife, daughter, sister, friend, instructor, and consultant.
After my chemotherapy finished, I had a month to let my body get back to normal before my radiation started on Jan 20th. Since my doctors were trying to avoid another surgery, my radiation treatments were going to be intense and strong. I had 33 treatments in total, five days on, two days off. For the first couple of weeks, other than being exhausted, I was OK. After two weeks, my skin started to burn, blister and swell. By the end, it hurt to wear any tops, as it would rub off my blistering skin and leave it raw. OK, enough of the gory details. I had my last radiation treatment on Thursday, March 5th and had an early (my new bedtime was between 9-10 p.m.) celebration with my family.
My healing began, I was fortunate that my skin improved much quicker than I expected, and I was optimistic that I would be able to go back to Instructing at Goodlife on March 16th. Sadly, I received an email from our Goodlife CEO, that due to Covid-19, Goodlife was closing! A part of me was a little relieved, as my skin had not completely healed and my energy and strength was nowhere near what I was in September, when I last taught.
Pain to purpose
I enjoyed the extra time with my boys being off from school, and not having to go to the hospital daily, and continued to let my body get back to normal. However, no surprise with my personality, I was getting antsy by the 3rd week of March. My confidence was fully back, I missed my Goodlife members and socializing with friends and family. I needed to find something that gave me ‘purpose’ and that I was passionate about and that I believed in. That is when I reached out to two close Goodlife friends to learn more about Neora, a Holistic, all natural, vegan based Anti – Aging, Health, Hair and Skincare line.
Both had been very successful as Brand Partners; they earned All Inclusive trips, Lexus Car Allowances, Bonuses, weekly commissions, and free products monthly! However, the most attractive part for me, was the FUN they were having. I would always see posts of them getting together for cocktails, coffee dates, parties, networking events, training sessions etc. I was desperately needing daily interactions, even though it was now through social media platforms with Covid-19, self-isolation restrictions.
Since I am the opposite of “Salesy” and with not being a social media guru (I never posted and my picture on Facebook was a family shot of when my youngest was nine months old, he is almost 12 now), I wasn’t sure if this was what I needed. Fortunately, they encouraged me and explained that this is a ‘family feel’ company that is supportive, fun, and amazing at providing as much or as little training that you want.
I slept on it for two days but was constantly thinking about it. Then I took the plunge and said, worse case, I get only three customers, qualifying me for $200 credit of product. With amazement, I did that in just five days and placed my 12th order on April 30th, qualifying me for Top PC Bonus, Commissions, and my $200 credit!! You should check out my website jennsmrz.neora.com, the products are amazing and truly work.
I’m ready for my next adventure
I feel blessed that I am feeling better both mentally and physically and for the support my friends, family, Goodlife community and my newfound Neora Family has given me. I have said it many times over the last year, I would honestly take on Cancer again (hopefully I never have to) then go through another bout of anxiety/depression. I was lucky to ‘get out’ of my lows each time with amazing Mental Health programs, doctors, and the support from my family and friends. I love you all and am excited to see what life has in store for me next. Thank you for reading, I apologize it was so long, but I cried through most of it.
About the Author:
Jenn Smrz is a mother of two active hockey boys, food lover, and first-time writer who has battled both depression and breast cancer—and come out stronger than ever! To contact Jenn directly, visit: jennsmrz.neora.com or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.smrz.7
Have you got an inspiring story? Write to us and help others as they reflect on their own journey. The more we can share, the better.