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Overcoming all the odds with Caroline Howe

Caroline Howe

By Guy Lawrence

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself” – unknown

This blog post has been long overdue! Ever wondered who is behind all our healthy 180 protein supplement recipes? Well it’s with great pleasure I get to introduce Caroline Howe into the frame. But this is no ordinary story.

A mother of two, Caroline overcame cancer twice whilst still in her early thirties (including having her thyroid removed) and decided to make a shift in her health and wellbeing once and for all. Five years on Caroline is one of the healthiest and fittest people I know and is a true inspiration to others! If you would like to learn more about this remarkable change… read on.

Caroline, including your cancer, you’ve had a few health setbacks from an early age. Can you talk us through them a little?

If you ask mum she’d tell you that I was sick from the moment I was born. There was always something wrong, from drowning in my own milk to an un-diagnosable heart condition that lingered for years. My mum kept telling the doctors there was something wrong with me because I kept gaining weight for no reason and that my heart was playing up. But the doctors kept telling mum that the only thing wrong with me was that I was gaining weight and that’s what was affecting my heart. It was a wicked cycle because I started to believe the doctors, that I wasn’t sick I was just lazy. I gained weight, I became shy, reclusive, tubbier and stopped sport all together. To be honest I was depressed. My friends could all play team sports after school and I wasn’t allowed to join in. I felt excluded. I became the school nerd.

At the age of 15 I was diagnosed with Wolfe Parkinson Whyte Syndrome. It wasn’t the best news but it was a relief to know that there was a reason for my illness and that I wasn’t making anything up. I still couldn’t exercise but at least I had a reason for not being well. I had to wait until I was 17 for medical science to be able to catch up with me and fix me. So at the age of 17 and after 12 hours of open-heart surgery I was fixed and finally on the road to recovery. I would finally be normal!

I then did what most people did, go to Uni and look forward to an exciting career and life. I fell pregnant at the age of 22 and again at 27, life was exhausting now, there wasn’t any time for me but it didn’t really matter that much, I had my health right. So, when at 32 I was diagnosed with cancer I was stunned.

Caroline pre-cancer diagnosis (below)

I had cervical cancer, bad cervical cancer. I didn’t even have any particular symptoms. I had heard stories about the stages of cervical cancer; that there are four stages of cancer cells and that you can catch the bad cells early with pap smears but my body missed all that and decided to just go all out and grow as much cancer in the smallest amount of time. Within weeks of diagnosis I was back in hospital and had a radical hysterectomy. At the time of the operation they found a second cancer, lurking quietly in the shadows, a nasty single cell carcinoma. After that came the treatment, the hospital appointments, the blood tests and more scans. It was exhausting.

Three years later, at the age of 35, I was diagnosed with cancer again. Another blow. This time it was thyroid cancer that had spread to the lymph glands. Within weeks I was back in hospital, more surgery. My thyroid and all the lymph glands on the right side of my neck were removed. Now I was having separate treatment for all the cancers. Two different hospitals, two lots of blood tests, multiple ongoing scans.

To this day I still go back into hospital every 6 months and I’ll be honest and say that the fear of cancer coming back is there.

So what motivated you to keep going?

Well I have two amazing children, they are big now, 18 and 14 but when I had the first lot of cancer they were young, 9 and 5 and then they were 14 and 9 when it hit again. People around them were telling them that I might die. I had no choice. I wasn’t worried about the adults around me coping if I died. Adults are built to be resilient but for the kids I had to try and I had to do everything I could to live. I’m stubborn and I had to prove everyone wrong.

A friend of mine with Cystic Fibrosis once said to me – “Caroline you have three choices in life, 1. Die trying, 2. Don’t try and die or 3. Try and live. At the end of the day, one out of three chances, if that’s all you have, is worth going for!”

Being sick for me has been like standing on the edge of the ocean with wave after wave beating me down, daring me not to get up again. The problem is – I like a dare, so I keep getting up!

You mentioned that you turned to exercise not long after (cancer), but realised that a much more holistic approach was needed (not just exercise), can you talk us throughout that a little?

After the cervical cancer my brain had a little melt down and I thought; I need to change my life and what I needed to do was get skinny. In my mind skinny people were healthy so I was committed to getting skinny. To do that I had to figure out what exercise I could do to achieve that goal. I looked at various athletes and thought to myself, runners are skinny and so I started to run! I ran and ran and ran. Yes almost like Forrest Gump. I lost 15 kilos, became really skinny and got more cancer.

Obviously my obsession in one area was not the solution.

After the thyroid cancer I thought, maybe if I change my life even more I won’t get sick again. So I left the city and thought, I’ll become organic. I’ll eat well, I’ll live off the land and that will help. But the balance wasn’t right because I’d stopped focussing on the exercise.

Then I read something that changed everything “A healthy body can’t grow cancer!”

They really aren’t kidding when they say, body, mind and soul. Was it possible that for me, something was out of balance? What was going on psychologically that was holding me back and what was holding me back physically that I wasn’t doing the best I could.

I also learned that there is all this research in quantum physics that says –

How you look at yourself directly influences your health at a cellular level, so if you look at yourself in a negative way then you have a higher percentage chance of letting your cells reproduce badly… and bad cells make cancer.

Being able to look at yourself and like what you see becomes astronomically important, especially if you are fighting to be healthy so that you can live a really long time. Living is also the motivation to keep going. I no longer have any excuses to do anything other than be the best that I can be. The amazing thing is, that I don’t even know how good I can be yet because the journey has just started.

I moved back to Sydney, I changed my life again, but this time I attacked all corners, job, diet, exercise and rest. The balance had shifted.

caroline afterI know you hit the gym more for exercise including lifting weights these day… Has this helped?

You know the movie Avatar, where the guy gets his new Avatar body, well that’s me now! I have never been as strong, I have never been as centred and I have never ever been as healthy.

I also have to mention my personal trainer Ben Ly of Rock Star Fitness. When I first started  back at the gym, Ben trained and guided me for a couple of years and he was instrumental in my progress. I would highly recommend getting a PT (personal trainer) to be held accountable of what your doing. You really can’t underestimate this!

Have you seen a difference in your goals and ideas about exercise from when you first ever started activity to returning after your cancer to where you are now?

When I started to go to aerobics classes, I went because it was fun, I got to go with my mum (which I loved) and I wanted to prove that I wasn’t the tubby book worm I had become. The funny thing about most exercise is that you can do a lot of it and see no change. The frustration sets in and you stop. Then you get comfortable, put on some kilos, get depressed, have another chocolate to make you feel better, get depressed, try the next fad of exercise, see no change and the cycle can go on and certainly did for me.

Getting cancer is like a full stop. When you get told you have cancer everything stops for a bit. It goes a little quiet. After the quiet everything becomes noisy. Really noisy! It’s a series of appointments and doctors and treatment and medicine and tablets. I got so scared to do anything, because I didn’t know what I did wrong in the first place to get it. The fear can be gripping.

While you have cancer, goals can be all about just taking the next breath and there have been times when taking the next breath was about the best I could do. You really need courage to keep going after cancer, but at the same time there is fear because you also don’t want to get sick again.

For the first time my journey into getting well is gorgeously holistic.

Where am I now? Well now I’m at a place where I realise that my life is what I make of it. When I think now, no Caroline you can’t, a little voice whispers and niggles at me – yes you can.

And your eating, how much has that changed? Can you give us an example of what you used to eat what you are eating now…

Before After
Breakfast: Cereal eg: 3 weet bix with honey Whole Milk  Breakfast: Protein Chocolate shake (1/2 banana – ice – choc 180 – 1 cup ice and 1 cup skim milk) - 1 espresso (tempted to tip this into the shake one day and make a mocha shake)
Morning tea: A biscuit or two with a cup of tea  Morning tea: 1 apple
Lunch: A sandwich with ham – sometimes with salad but optional  Lunch: Chicken salad (or a good protein so if I am busy then I may have another 180 protein shake with some salad as a snack) Maybe a piece of fruit
Afternoon tea: Wine - Cheese - Crackers  Afternoon tea: A high protein muffin (so many varieties to choose from so I bake a stack at the beginning of the week and have some variety between savoury and sweet muffins to choose from) - 1 apple
Dinner: Pasta a few nights a week with some meat or cream sauce - Sometimes steak and a salad  Dinner: Protein and vegetable (chicken – salmon – lamb etc)
Desert: Ice cream some night of the week  Desert: If I want desert I will get  1/2 cup greek style natural yogurt with 1/2 frozen mixed berries or two squares of Lindt 70% dark chocolate and a cup of tea.

Have you seen a difference in your perspective of exercise and your perception of life?

My perceptions of exercise have been so blown out of the water it’s not even funny any more. My body has never been this strong and never ever been this healthy. This is fun now, waking up and pushing myself to see how far I can go is fun and it’s exciting.

Being sick is not fun and I’ve been sick on and off for so many years now that for me, it’s time I take control, control of my body, mind and soul.

It is amazing to me how awesome feeling healthy and good is.

Doing what I do now in the gym and pushing me to the physical limit inspires me in all areas of life.

Fear stopped me from embracing life to its full potential for years but now I’m strong and being strong makes you brave. Being brave inspires me to try even harder and that makes me so excited about this new journey I’m on.

How often do you exercise and what do you usually do?

I exercise 4 times a week for about 1/2 hour at a time. I like to keep the sessions short but pretty intense, CrossFit style. Lifting weights with short bursts of cardio. I love it!

If you could say one thing to all those people in similar shoes or situations to where you were, what would it be?

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself” unknown

Do you have a question for Caroline? Have you overcome adversity yourself? Or you simply inspired by Caroline’s story. Would love to hear your thoughts & comments below… Cheers, Guy