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This was Kirsten Johnson’s life in 2016 when she battled stage 3B inflammatory breast cancer. She’s pictured here with her stepdaughter, Claire (now 17), the daughter of her now ex-husband, and her daughter James, now 6.
Being a cancer patient / self-employed / single mom is no fucking joke.”
You can count on Kirsten Johnson to tell it like it is. You can also count on her to work through major jumbles by taking life one breath at a time. At almost 42, she’s gone through her fair share of challenges, and the pandemic hasn’t exactly helped. As an entrepreneur running two businesses in Royal Oak, Michigan — as a personal chef and as a doula — the bulk of her work was put on hold until recently.
Kirsten cooks just about everything under the sun for Fresh Chef Detroit, the business she’s run for nine years. Her specialty is vegetarian, vegan, and food for restricted diets.
Kirsten was diagnosed with Stage 3B inflammatory breast cancer in 2016 and officially finished active treatment in January 2018. It was then that she launched her second business, Detroit Doulas, but then the pandemic hit in March 2020, and doulas were no longer allowed in most hospitals.
“I’m hoping to find some combination of cheffing and being a doula once we’re all allowed to be out in the world again safely,” Kirsten said in late May 2020. “Being a chef and on my feet all day is really hard on my already-struggling body. I would love to transition to more doula-ing than cheffing — I know I can’t keep going at this pace.”
Here, Kirsten talks about life on the other side of cancer and divorce, the payoffs of hard work and relaxation, and her therapist’s advice.
I did two separate chemo regimens, radiation, had a double mastectomy and reconstruction, followed by two reconstruction revisions. It was truly awful. It’s not often I say it so bluntly, but it was horrible. If there was a side effect, I got it: Pericardial effusion. Cdiff. I was in the hospital all the time.
My daughter was 2 and my stepdaughter was 13 at the time, which made it extra-complicated. Because of the cdiff, kids weren’t allowed to visit me most of the time.
I’m on hormone blockers that have a slew of side effects, which make my “back to normal” life tough, but I try not to complain. Bone loss, fatigue, bone pain, hot flashes, carpal tunnel, hair loss, weight gain. It can be really challenging, depending on the day, but I mostly keep it to myself. I’m happy to be here on this planet and to not have had a recurrence of cancer.
One designation of my cancer is that I was HER-2 positive. Long story short — more aggressive and more likely to recur. Thanks to relatively new drugs that target that aspect, my prognosis is much better than it would have been even five years ago.
“Bone loss, fatigue, bone pain, hot flashes, carpal tunnel, hair loss, weight gain. It can be really challenging, depending on the day, but I mostly keep it to myself. I’m happy to be here on this planet and to not have had a recurrence of cancer.”
My marriage was not in a good place when I was in treatment, which made my experience worse. I tried to do all I could when I felt well to take care of the kids, etc., as all of the money-making responsibility was on my husband. There was a pretty bad dynamic with us the whole time. I think we were both doing our best to get through it. We parted ways not long after I was done with treatment, in the spring of 2018.
Because people don’t want to go to restaurants, now, in July 2020, I’ve done a few dinner parties and am cooking for a couple of clients every other week. I’ve also been doing some overnight doula shifts, taking care of the most adorable newborn, which I swear is better than therapy. Especially because I can then go home and take a nap.
If conversations with my doctors and doctor clients are true, there’s only a few months to attempt some income, in addition to the minimal unemployment I was getting, before things shut down again once flu season hits and nobody knows whether they have the flu or COVID. I’m trying to at least get some of the bills people off my back and build up some reserves best I can.
I became fascinated with natural birth long before I was even married. I don’t even know why — perhaps because it is my calling. I had my daughter James in a natural birth center with a doula and midwife. I immediately felt called to be a birth worker, but told myself I couldn’t change my career for the fourth time. Reporter-turned nanny-turned chef-turned doula? Cancer has a way of saying you can do whatever the hell you want.
As my cancer treatment wound down, I did birth and postpartum doula training, but had to shelf it when I ended my marriage. A single mom can’t exactly jet in the middle of the night if someone goes into labor.
An opportunity came up to be a part of a collective (i.e., not on call every day) in 2019. Through the collective, I did one birth in September 2019. I decided the collective’s mentoring program wasn’t a great fit and teamed up with a classmate to form Detroit Doulas in early 2020. Our first client’s birth was May 24, 2020. Unfortunately, we couldn’t be there because the hospital she birthed in is the only one in southeast Michigan not letting doulas AND a partner in because of COVID. It didn’t go as planned and she texted that she was “devastated” with how it went. We should have been allowed to be there. I feel so called to support birthing families. Everyone deserves the birth support they want. I’m happy to say we officially signed another client today (July 8, 2020), a single mom by choice, who we’re thrilled to support.
I hate having to think about it and talk about it, but here I am. I’m a single mom who’s self-employed and unable to work as much as I did pre-pandemic. My medical appointments and bills haven’t stopped. My rent and high insurance premium are still due every month. And the fees for the bills I can’t pay during this pandemic keep piling up. I’m a hard worker and make good money when I’m working. I know I will tackle it all eventually. I made the decision to end my marriage knowing this would be a major challenge for me. This pandemic hasn’t helped.
I hope I’m doing a good job. My daughter has gone through a lot of change in her six short years of life. Should I replace her college fund with a therapy fund? Fortunately, her dad and I co-parent really well. He’s a great dad, and between the two of us, I think she’ll be just fine.
How am I spending my time? With whom am I spending my time? The to-do list is always a mile long, yet I know I have to be kind to my body and mind. Be easy on myself if I can.
My original doula business was called Breathe and Be Doula Services. That advice is good for anyone; feel free to steal it as your mantra. In any situation, take a moment to breathe and be. Take a deep breath and stay present. Tackle what you can in front of you at this very moment. A therapist once told me to take 20 minutes at the end of the day to do as much as you can on your to-do list. You’d be surprised how much you can get done in 20 minutes. Then chill out until you go to bed.
My 40s have been a roller coaster so far. I turned forty 10 days after my divorce was final. My girls took me out and… I won’t tell you how the night ended — it’s a little fuzzy.
I did well single. I enjoyed the quiet on the days my daughter wasn’t home and I had no trouble flying solo. I was ready to get to know me. Examine my own role in my marriage, determine what my future as a mother was to look like and just exhale and have some fun. About six months after my divorce, I was set up on a blind date and we fell hard and fast for each other. Just shy of our first anniversary, we became engaged in January. We were about to close on a house we were set to build when I ended the engagement a few weeks ago. As with every experience in life, I have learned so much. I’m obviously still processing my most recent relationship, but I feel good about who I am and where I am. And I’m proud of myself for ending something that wasn’t right even though it was difficult.
To trust my instincts and that I can do hard things. Hard work pays off, as does rest and relaxation. My body may be scarred, burned, squishy. and cut and pasted back together again, but it’s beautiful. I’ve birthed a magical creature, beat cancer, and my body keeps on going.
“My body may be scarred, burned, squishy, and cut and pasted back together again, but it’s beautiful. I’ve birthed a magical creature, beat cancer, and my body keeps on going.”
I know and appreciate the people I can rely on and lean on, and I try to let go of my expectations of the people I can’t.
And, as Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who you are, believe them the first time.”
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Amy Cuevas Schroeder is the cofounder and Chief Content Officer of Jumble & Flow, the new lifestyle brand that empowers women to thrive in midlife. She started her first business, Venus Zine, in her dorm room at Michigan State University, and later sold the company. She now lives in the Chicago area, and is raising twin girls with her husband, Martin, a social worker. She’s worked as a content leader for Etsy, Minted, and Abstract, and has written for NYLON, Pitchfork, The Startup, and more.
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