On Oct. 21, 2014, Jen Hartney received a phone call with her breast cancer diagnosis. Thirty-five years old. Thirty-eight weeks pregnant. … That’s not the time anyone would expect cancer to swing into your life.
“There was definitely a point where I felt like I was probably a little bit oblivious to the details of the fight that was to come,” she says. “I had six weeks between having my baby and then going into surgery.”
In the wake of being diagnosed and after talking with her doctors and researching, Jen decided to have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.
“I just thought, ‘Well, you know what? I’ve been through childbirth five times. We can get through a surgery. It’s fine. We can do surgery. Surgery is fine. I can survive that part.’
“Just being a type-A, driven person, I just started to research,” Jen says. “Of course, you run across the doom and gloom, but as I started researching, I started understanding different ways that nutrition really does affect your body.
“And when I would research all the conventional, or so-called, causes of cancer and risk factors, I had none of them. So, it just was kind of a mystery on how the cancer happened.”
That mystery would lead to the realization that healthy living is rooted in good nutrition. While eating begins at the table, beating cancer begins in your head – and Jen learned both of these truths.
‘I was in a different world’
Back to late October 2014 …
“I remember I got the phone call, and I went outside,” Jen Hartney says. “I sat on the curb. And I have a big old pregnant belly, and I’m sitting on the curb, and I just remember cars driving past and thinking, ‘How in the world did my life just flip upside down and there’s normal things happening, like people just driving by to run errands and people walking outside to check their mail?’
“And it just felt completely surreal. The best way I can describe it is that it just felt like I was in a different world.”
Fear would play through my mind and think, ‘What’s going to happen if they grow up without a mom?’ Or immediately my mind would race forward to just telling my husband, ‘You have to get remarried if something happens to me because they need a mom.’
Still, Jen and her husband, Rich, also had a growing family to think about.
“My husband, he's the most consistent, steady person I know, which is a great balance for me,” Jen says. “From the beginning, he didn’t doubt.
“He said, ‘We’ll get through this, and it’s going to be OK.’ I don’t know if he really believed it at the moment, but that’s what I needed to hear.”
Once Jen and Rich had come to terms with the breast cancer diagnosis, it was time to focus on giving birth and then preparing for surgery.
“I started researching and learning during those six weeks about nutrition and what can happen to your body when you are nutritionally deficient and when you have stress thrown in there and other factors … it really made sense to how I got cancer as a young 35-year-old. ‘Oh my gosh. I have not been eating well at all.’
“I jokingly call myself a recovered ice cream addict,” Jen confides.
“We didn’t eat terribly; we didn’t eat McDonald’s three times a day,” she says, “but I certainly was not focused on a nutrient-dense diet. I really was addicted to ice cream; I probably had a bowl every single night. For our wedding, we had an ice cream sundae bar instead of a cake, because I just really loved ice cream. I mean, I can justify having ice cream for breakfast, because you get your calories and burn your calories all throughout the day.
“So yeah, those six weeks between having the baby and before my surgery, that's when I just dove into the research and the nutrition, and that's when it clicked to me and I thought, ‘This is something I can do.’ It empowered me. … I dove so far into the research because it gave me something to do – and it gave me some control back of a situation that felt completely out of control.”
And baby makes seven
Childbirth is an enormous strain on a woman’s body. That added stress does not mix well with cancer.
“They induced me since I was close enough to being full term,” Jen Hartney says. “Really, that was the first thing we had to do – focus on getting through a healthy labor and a delivery and have a healthy baby.”
Once the baby was delivered, the Hartneys turned their attention to Jen’s cancer. She met with her oncologist and mapped out a course of action.
“We ran through the standard, chemo, radiation, genetic testing … it was just a ton of information,” she says. “My doctor, he really was good. He didn’t say, ‘On such-and-such date, you will do this, and then you will do this, and then you will do this.’
“It was, ‘Well, this is what chemo will look like, and this is what we would do for the radiation.’ I got the referral for the radiologist and then met with my surgeon. … A bit chaotic, I would say, because it’s all really disjointed.
“I mean, you go see the oncologist, and then you go see the surgeon, and then you see a radiologist, and then you see a geneticist. And it was just so many different appointments, and you’re bouncing around through all these different specialists. And it took a while for us to pull together a game plan, basically, because there were so many different pieces involved.”
And then, there was the ever-present fear …
‘That was probably my breaking point’
The Hartneys’ children ranged from newborn to 7. Their lives were just beginning and the thought of Jen not being around was constantly in her thoughts.
Says Jen: “That fear would play through my mind and think, ‘What’s going to happen if they grow up without a mom?’ Or immediately my mind would race forward to just telling my husband, ‘You have to get remarried if something happens to me because they need a mom.’
“There were lots of fears of just wondering, ‘What if this doesn't end the way that I would want it to end? What if there’s a different plan that’s bigger than me, and the plan that’s bigger doesn’t necessarily mean that I get to live and survive cancer?’
“I believe that the plan for my life has already been written out,” she says. “What I eat, what I do right now doesn’t determine what my last day will be – but it does determine how well I live out my days.”
Ultimately, Jen’s mentality was “let’s get this done.” She did not want to dwell on the surgery. It was time to tackle cancer – and move on with her life.
“I had a peace going into that surgery,” she recalls. “I woke up the morning of, kissed my 6-week-old baby goodbye, and kissed my kids goodbye while they were all sleeping, trying not to wake them up, and knowing that when I came back, I would not be able to hold my baby or any of my kids for, I didn't know how long it would be …”
Jen says she “didn't freak out at all, not that I remember, at least,” while being prepped for surgery. But she was not prepared for post-surgery.
“I remember when I came out of it, I felt like I had been run over by a semi and that it had backed up and run over me like a hundred times more,” she says. “I think that was my breaking point, was just the physical pain matched the inside, what I was feeling on the inside.
“That was probably my breaking point at which I felt I just wanted it to be over. I really don't want to keep fighting through this, because there was so much pain.”
‘They had not gotten all the cancer’
OK, so the surgery was a success. Yes, there was pain. Yes, there were mental hurdles to overcome. But Jen Hartney had made it through the toughest part. Recovery was at hand; it was time to get on with life.
“I went in for my checkup just to make sure the sutures were healing and that everything was OK because I had lost a lot of blood during my surgery,” Jen says.
Did You Know?
Stress and cancerDr. Véronique Desaulniers offers seven ways stress can impact cancer growth:
• Inhibit DNA repair
• Activate inflammatory responses
• Encourage angiogenesis or increased blood flow to cancer cells
• Inhibit immune response
• Inhibit programmed cancer cell death
• Reduce the cytotoxic function of natural killer cells
• Stimulate “epithelial-mesenchymal transition,” one of the processes through which new cancer stem cells can be born and encourage the spread of cancer cells.
• Read more
“When I went in for that follow-up appointment thinking we would just be told that the stitches look fine, you’re healing OK. … They actually told me that they had not gotten all the cancer and that we would be going in for another surgery.
“Hearing that news is probably one of the lowest points of my entire life. It just felt like we had just gotten punched in the gut. And I didn't know what to make of that, because I had barely, barely been able to get, I mean literally barely been walking when we were told that I was going to go in for another surgery.
“That was a real low point,” Jen admits, “just because I felt like I was literally being just beaten and bruised and battered and just covered in scars and bruises and marks and just stitches. My body was just a physical mess. … I just couldn’t get my feet underneath me.”
The second surgery, however, proved to be a turning point for Jen.
“Before going into my second surgery, I really just completely surrendered to God and said, ‘I don't know what your plan is, and I don't know why this is so much harder than what I think it has to be.’ But He just gave me a real sense of peace going into that second surgery, and it was really when I woke up from the second surgery that I felt, ‘Alright, we're going to fight this. We're going to come up with a plan, and I don't know what the end result will be.’ ”
‘Standing guard over me’
While interviewing Jen Hartney the sense of angst she endured is palpable. No doubt there were fears. Family is her life; there is boundless love. The idea that she would not be there for her husband and children was tough to consider.
After the surgeries, there was a time when Jen could not hold nor pick up her children. She was literally detached from the physical bond of mother-child. I asked if she felt like a spectator in her own life.
“I always hesitate to tell this story, and I don't know why, because I think it's one of the biggest parts of this story,” Jen says. “When I came out of that surgery, the first thing I did is, as I was literally waking up, I just had tears in my eyes. And I looked at my husband and I said, ‘Did you see it?’ I said, ‘It was huge.’
“And then he said I kind of passed out for a few more minutes, and then my surgeon came in to check on me, and as I was waking up again, I said to him with tears in my eyes, ‘Did you see it? ‘It was huge.’
“It was an angel. I saw the angel in the room, and he was in the corner of the room of the surgery, of the OR, and I was facing its back,” she says. “Beyond him, I could see myself on the table with my surgeon and with the nurses and the whole medical staff, them just working on me. I never exchanged any words with the angel, and I just had this sense that at any moment it would just unfurl its wings and it would just be this huge shield of protection and that it was just watching, standing guard over me, basically.”
Jen admits she is hesitant to tell the angel-in-the-room story. “I know some people will think I’m a complete loon,” she says. But she is steadfast that the second surgery was a turning point for her life.
“I felt like I had a glimpse of something beyond me to show that it wasn’t just up to me to fight this battle – that I had, basically, backup. I had somebody else fighting this for me, and I was just there going through the steps and the motions.
“As far as feeling like a spectator,” Jen says, “I don’t know the right answer to that. In some ways, I felt everybody is going on with life, and it’s so normal for them, and yet I’m in this other world of still trying to fight for my life and not even knowing what the next week may bring as far as types of treatment that we may pursue because we still weren’t sure about doing chemo or radiation. I actually had the port put in during my surgery since I was already under.”
‘The healing power of touch’
Ultimately, life returned to normal – as much as ‘normal’ can be after two intense surgeries. And a normal life gradually included being able to have physical contact. It was two months after her baby was born.
“I could finally hold her and somewhat kind of pick her up if she was on an elevated surface,” Jen Hartney says. “At that point, my kids could gently, they had to be very careful around mommy, they could gently put their arms around my neck. I still couldn’t raise my arms above head. I still couldn’t reach out in a huge hug, and everything was still really sore and tender.
“It made me realize the healing power of touch, just the fact that just that physical touch with the people you love, with other people, that there is just some sort of degree of healing in that itself.”
However, the power of touch isn’t necessarily physical. Jen learned that her words could touch people. As part of a military family, the Hartneys literally had moved many times. She started a blog to keep family and friends informed about her diagnosis and surgeries.
“That’s just how we were updating folks on different steps and progress and surgeries and choices of treatment,” Jen says. “Once we decided to pursue an alternate route or a holistic route, I just, naturally, there was just a lot of questions of people saying, ‘Well, what are you doing? What does that include? What does that involve? And why this and why not that?’
“It was through all the education and through sharing what we were doing and the why behind it that really became, to me, I guess the reason why I enjoyed and decided to share more the story and to actually start educating people.
“As far as food goes and the nutrition side of things, almost everything that works for an ‘anticancer’ diet really is just a great diet for anybody. It’s just a good, healthy way to live and way to eat whole foods. That really became the reason why I start sharing the information with other people – I realized it was good for a lot of people if you’re struggling with blood pressure or diabetes or digestive issues. So much of what I had learned applied to that, and so that became the driving force behind deciding to share more of my story and information.”
With that realization, The Prodigal Table was born …
‘A table where everyone is welcome’
During a visit with a friend, Jen was talking about the blog and how she wanted to evolve it into a website, to be a place where people gather. The friend said a table came to mind: “Where food meets faith.”
“I said, ‘Yes, totally, a table where everyone is welcome and everyone has a seat and it’s a place of just grace.’
“That led me to the word ‘prodigal’ because it refers to the story in the Bible of the prodigal son. What I love about that story is just the amount of grace that is in there when the son returns from having gone his own way and spent his inheritance and had done things, made poor decisions, and yet when he returns, there’s no shame. There's no condemnation by the father. The son already knows what he’s done. The reaction he gets from the father is just full of grace.
“I feel like there’s not just enough … you can never have too much grace in our world,” Jen says. “Especially when it comes to faith and especially when it comes to food, I feel the desire and a conviction to make it a place full of grace where people don’t feel like they come and they have to feel guilty about what they're eating or feel like what they’re doing or not doing should make them feel ashamed but that there’s just a lot of grace, because I have received a lot of grace.
“I just want anyplace I am, whether it physically be the table or the website, just to be a place of grace for others.”
The transition to healthy eating for the Hartneys began with Jen in the kitchen, preparing meals for the family.
“Before all of this began,” she says, “I’ve always had an interest in food, and more the science and the chemistry behind food and how different elements work together. And I love food, and I think I just love when it tastes great. So, from the very beginning, I thought, ‘Well, we can’t just chow down a bunch of kale and broccoli all day. This has to taste good.’
“That’s another huge part of eating well, is that you eat food that tastes good. I always wanted to make food that also tasted good. I wasn’t just forcing them to chew on green leaves all day.
“The transition, I would say, wasn’t so terrible,” Jen says, “because they were all very accepting, either for my husband by choice or for my kids because they didn’t have a choice. It was an introduction of different vegetables and some questions of like, ‘Why don't we do this?’ or ‘Why don’t we do that?’
“My husband would probably say that I am an experimenter,” she admits. “I’m always trying something new. I mean, we do have a handful of standby recipes that I know my kids will always like, and those are great, because I throw those into the mix, into our weekly menu. Probably two or three times, we have a meal that’s an oldie but goody.
“But I’m constantly trying new things, constantly adjusting recipes, trying to see what I can tweak here or there or just trying things that are completely new because I feel like food is this endless world of possibilities.”
Well, except for one food.
“Other than in a capsule form, I have not tried liver,” Jen admits. “I know that it’s really nutrient dense, but I just can’t bring myself to try that yet. I wish I could.”
‘I really don't know what the future holds’
With a large family and a burgeoning website on her plate, you may get the impression that Jen Hartney has her hands full. You’d be right – but it’s not overwhelming.
“I used to think that I wanted to do something huge,” she says, “that I want to do something big and just make this huge impact on the world – and not necessarily in terms of fame, because I really am somebody who does much better working behind the scenes.
So much of the battle is in your head. … There’s a place and a time to come to terms with your fears and to get that ugly cry out, but … there’s just a mental toughness that you have to acquire throughout this battle.
“And now, when I look to the future, I just think, ‘Man, I’m so content to just affect whatever circle He’s placed me in, and it doesn’t have to be big. It can be as small as a handful of friends and my neighbors and my family. I'm content with that, and that itself can be used for good.
“I really don't know what the future holds,” she says. “I have some dreams here and there, and I’ve always loved the idea of being somebody who can help and rescue and just help other people. That’s always been a passion of mine. … I think God will work all that out. But yeah, I can’t really say I have any huge vision right now, because I’m just thankful for what we have right now, and I feel like I’m just content with this.”
Jen also knows beating cancer is a mindset.
“The first thing [my OB] said to me was, in essence, ‘You need to get your head in the game.’ And I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m just reeling from this information, and she’s telling me to get my head in the game.’ She said 90 percent of this is in your head. I tucked those words away and didn’t really think about it. But that was one of the things that stood out to me as I was recovering between the two different surgeries.
“I was talking to a friend who had flown in to help take care of me and my kids, my family. And she could just tell how discouraged I was and just what a low point it was. She said, ‘We need to start sending you some positive stories because I think when you’re on the Internet, you’re just reading about all the doom and gloom and reading about all these terrible stories.’
Friends began sending Jen positive stories of cancer survivors. And it made a difference.
“So much of the battle is in your head,” Jen admits. “So much of this is getting away from the negative talk and the fear and the doubts. There’s a place and a time to come to terms with your fears and to get that ugly cry out, but after that, really so much of this really truly is in your head, and there’s just a mental toughness that you have to acquire throughout this battle.
“Seek out the positive, seek out those good stories – because they’re out there.”
Jen is content and she has perspective – on life, her passion, and cancer: “It’s a disease. That’s all it is. It’s just a disease – and you can beat it.”