The Birth of Henny the Tough Chick

Henny was born in January of 2021…

I was diagnosed with stage 3 rectal cancer in the winter of 2018. DPD deficiency brought me close to organ failure, so I had to abandon chemo midway, and I subsequently developed an incisional hernia at the Ileostomy site half a year later while I was on a short vacation to Europe. Within thirty hours of touching German soil, a serious bowel obstruction landed me in the Emergency Room of a hospital in Cologne, where a highly specialized surgeon was prepared to open me straight up and sort out my innards. During one of my sleepless nights my nurse, who had witnessed such a surgery, described it as opening up the body, taking out the whole intestinal package, sifting through it inch by inch, fixing everything, and then packing it up neatly and stuffing it back where it came from. 

Knowing my German countrymen, I figured they would not let me out of that hospital for many weeks to come, therefore I declined that offer and rather made them pump countless liters of IV fluids through me with the hopes that this would resolve the obstruction. In the enforced isolation of my hospital room due to having just been on an international flight, I would walk round after round like a caged tiger, trying desperately to get my bowels moving again. It worked, but I got so bloated by the huge amounts of fluids that I looked like I was about to give birth to twins, and my swollen legs and feet hardly fit into my shoes.

I left the hospital just in time to attend my 30th class reunion in my hometown, and I was on the plane back to Canada the following day. Two days after arrival I found myself at my local ER with yet another serious blockage, which expedited me into reversal surgery the following week. 

(In case you’re wondering – The Canadian Health System is notoriously short on doctors and surgery appointments.)

In Canada, they try to get you out of the hospital as quickly as possible, and I went home three days after my reversal, but I was back in the ER just four days later, again with bowel obstruction. This time they realized that I had a huge hole in my abdominal wall, which required a large mesh to fix it. My surgeon begged me to wait for two months with this next surgery, to allow the ileostomy site to heal first. He was concerned that the mesh would cause serious inflammation. So, I waited. It was the longest two months of my life. I was in bed most of the time, crying in pain, utterly exhausted, not eating, not sleeping, throwing up while shitting my pants due to LARS. My apologies – TMI! 

My all-time low, notwithstanding the misery I went through during the chemo poisoning. The times I was halfway okay, I went to work. I had designed a mansion for a client, and the construction crew could not wait for my side effects to subside.

That hernia repair was the most brutal of all surgeries I went through. My belly was on fire, and the pain meds did not work. The ones that finally worked caused hallucinations, so I immediately weaned myself off them. I cocooned for a month; recovery was very slow this time around. While I had not lost any hair during chemo, my hair now came out by the bushel due to the stress. 

Just as I was finally ready to jump back into action, COVID entered the world stage. Canada had a very strict shut-down policy, which was honestly the best thing that could happen to me at this point. 

I needed an enforced break after this year from hell. I cocooned a little longer and worked on a number of private creative projects. 

Then one of our beloved kitties died prematurely of cancer. I got triggered and fell into a deep hole. To get out of it, I started to illustrate her very unusual rescue story, and to my surprise, I was very pleased with the results. All the while I wondered how and when I would finally be able to work through the trauma of my cancer diagnosis. Then one of my FB support groups asked for a design for a group T-Shirt with the topic ‘Tough Chick’.

And thus, Henny the Tough Chick was born. Henny is my Alter Ego; I can express the horror of a Big C diagnosis through her and her friends with a touch of lightheartedness. My life’s motto has been to find the ‘Magic in the Everyday’. Cancer took this away from me for a while; I did not recognize myself anymore- physically, mentally, spiritually. Henny is also able to open up the conversation with my partner. As close as we are, he never quite understood how cancer affected me, and he is often shocked by the raw power of my illustrations. 

I want Henny to be a tool to help friends and family members understand what their Tough Chicks are going through and how they can support them. The power of visuals might result in a more visceral response than the written word, and the illustrations might be an ideal vehicle to communicate with younger humans about cancer.

Henny does have a mind of her own. She is a work in progress, and I am always surprised by what wants to come to the surface. Not all drawings are rooted in personal experience, as I am often inspired by the words of my fellow Tough Chicks.


Photo courtesy of Ines Hanl.