It was November 2, 2016. She sat in a tiny doctor’s office, surrounded by her family. The bleak, pastel-painted room was spinning. The doctor had just said the C-word. And she thought, but it’s only ovarian cancer. That’s treatable, right?
“When we were in the room and they were giving us the diagnosis, we kept saying, ‘Well, what’s our plan? What are we going to do, chemo or whatever?’” Jen Horvath remembers. “And, he just said, ‘No.’”
Jen’s life could have fallen to pieces. She had her life planned, and thought she knew what was in store for her. She wanted to teach dance. She wanted to be a wife and mother. Now, she was left staring out over the abyss. Her dreams had been dashed with the diagnosis of a rare and untreatable form of ovarian cancer.
She doesn’t look sick. She hears it all the time. Four years post-diagnosis, the former Miss Tecumseh 2000 winner is still beautiful. The 37-year-old has a feisty personality, a sharp and witty sense of humour, and a sly smile.
You wouldn’t know by looking at her that she is in pain every day, battling for her friends and family, fighting the inevitable—that the cancer is slowly taking over. The doctors gave her only five years to live.
In July 2016, Jen was exploring a career in dance. She had just started dating Moe Lajoie, a single father of four. Everything seemed to be going her way, until they took a turn. “We look back on things and see how God puts things in your way for your journey,” she explains. One day she was out driving and suddenly found herself doubled over in agony. She brought her car to a stop and lost the contents of her stomach on the side of the road.
On August 8, the doctors found something they didn’t like. Then her legs failed when she lost all feeling in them. Her life in chaos, confined to a wheelchair, she was afflicted with migraines and constipation.
During a procedure to remove what doctors thought were cysts, the stark reality was revealed. “There was a tumour the size of a baby’s head,” Jen says. “That’s why I always felt full—and it was everywhere.”
She was diagnosed with low-grade serious carcinoma, a rare subset of ovarian cancer that is not chemo-sensitive—meaning chemo has little or no effect on the disease. Her condition is accompanied by paraneoplastic syndrome, which is where the tumour encourages her body’s immune system to attack her nervous system.
Suddenly, it was like her entire future had turned to ashes.
Jen tried to give Moe the easy way out, but he wouldn’t have any of it. “He said, ‘No, I want to do this, the kids will be fine,’” Jen explains.
They told the older kids about her cancer, and the kids were supportive and helpful. Jen’s eyes glow as she talks about the bond she has formed with her stepdaughter, especially through dance, and the sleepovers and long conversations with her stepsons.
“The kids didn’t really know much, they just knew I was sick,” she explains. “I think they needed a mom just as much as I needed a family.”
The couple decided to get married—shotgun style—and planned the nuptials in six months. “We moved at a quicker pace than most people,” Jen laughs. They were married in September 2017.
She cherishes the memories of her wedding, especially her father-daughter dance. She and Bill worked on the routine for weeks and it is one their proudest moments. Jen left her job at TD Bank to go teach dance full time at a local studio. She had the career she wanted and was married with children. Despite the massive roadblocks in her way, she was doing her best to accomplish her dreams.
With her friend Catherine Cristofaro, Jen now co-owns and teaches at the Rivertown Dance Academy in Amherstburg, and the community has turned out. “I just loved it, I loved how they embraced her,” says Jen’s mom, Debbie.
Jen is constantly burying herself in her work and pushing herself to the point of exhaustion. “I try to be strong for everyone, but because I don’t look sick, people always think, ‘Well, you’re fine. You look okay,’” she explains.
On the outside, she looks calm and composed, but there’s a battle inside.
“It’s not like I say, ‘Hi, I’m Jen. I have terminal cancer. How are you?’”
In November of last year, things began to get worse. The symptoms were too much for her to handle on her own, and with her husband having to manage the children and the household, she knew he couldn’t also take on the burden of her care. And so she made the difficult decision to move back home.
“Jen and I have always been close,” Debbie smiles. “Actually, our whole family is really close. Growing up, we had the best dinner table talks, where any topic was discussed. I could so embarrass both my children right now. We can laugh so much about them, recalling the memories.”
Living back at home, Jen lost some of the independence she thought she’d have at 37. “You think you grow up and you’re eventually going to take care of your parents, but my mom actually had to take care of me,” Jen explains.
Jen’s condition leaves her needing help around the house with things we take for granted, like rolling out of bed and taking showers.
“It really changed our relationship,” she says. “As a grown adult, you want your independence.”
Debbie has been struggling with the new normal as well. “As a mother, you just can’t bear to see your child endure any suffering, let alone having to deal with cancer.”
Jen’s admiration for Debbie shines through when she talks about some of the harder times. “I keep it strong and positive for everyone else and then she ends up getting the worst of my bad days as well,” says Jen.
Jen and Bill keep things light around the house with what Debbie calls their “weird humour.” It can be a bit morbid, but it helps keep things jovial when times get tough.
“I was like, ‘Well, you know Mom, when I come back, I’m going to haunt you!’” Jen grins. “And she’s like, ‘Don’t ever say that!’ But I thought it was funny. I’m like, ‘I’m going to move crap around on you and freak you out every once in a while.’
“We need humour in this sometimes.”
On their mantle, the Horvath family keeps a picture of Jen’s surgical scar encircled by each one of their hands. They are all about making memories and celebrating life. Debbie and Jen both wear a locket with a snippet of hair to signify their bond, but they also took it a step further.
During treatment, Jen told her mom that she’d like to get mother-daughter tattoos. Debbie was a little shocked by the idea at first, but after a chance encounter with an ovarian cancer survivor, she knew it had to be done. They each have a small forearm tattoo saying “Jen” and “Mom” in each other’s handwriting, drawn with a heart. “It’s so little and simple: that’s my mom’s writing and she has my writing,” beams Jen with her sleeve rolled up. “A piece of her is with me all the time and a piece of me is with her.”
Every September, the Horvaths walk in the Ovarian Cancer Walk of Hope at the Vollmer Recreation Complex in LaSalle. “You really get to see some amazing people and how they put themselves out for you,” says Jen. “We were always those people who did it for others, so it’s crazy when it comes back to you.”
For four years, Team Jen has raised money through yard sales and spin-cycle fundraisers. A good part of the money goes to benefit the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. After the walk, they meet back at Debbie and Bill’s for refreshments, generously donated by Antonino’s Pizza.
“It gets sad, it’s hard. There are people who have lost people and we recognize them. We survivors get to walk and we talk about our doctors and it’s tough because we all have different journeys.”
The Canadian Cancer Society estimated that 3,000 Canadians would be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2019 and that 1,900 would die from it. Other than ultrasounds and blood tests, the medical community has struggled to create effective ways to screen for the disease. Only one in five cases of ovarian cancer is discovered at an early stage.
Jen says that she hopes there is a cure one day and has given samples for testing. “If it’s rare and I could help someone else 10 years down the line, at least I can do something.”
Jen doesn’t know how much time she has left, but she will not give in. She is fighting the disease with positivity and dignity. She wakes up every day determined to defy cancer and live life to its fullest.
“I could have made the decision to lie in bed and just give up,” Jen says as her eyes well with tears. Her mother takes her hand. “Because I have such a close family and I knew how much that would affect everyone else and what they’re going through, I needed to be strong so they could be strong.
“I couldn’t live with myself knowing that everyone else is struggling if I couldn’t do this.”
She is living for her family, living for today.
“There’s always so much joy in this world we miss because we’re trying to pass through and get to the next thing,” Jen smiles through her tears. “If you stop and look around, there are so many good things happening every day that you just need to sit in the moment and appreciate it.”