‘Cancer has a way of saying you can do whatever the hell you want’

Kirsten Johnson shows what it’s like to run two businesses — as a personal chef and doula — while single parenting and recovering from cancer. “It’s no fucking joke.”

Kirsten launched Fresh Chef Detroit in 2011.
Kirsten launched Fresh Chef Detroit in 2011.
Kirsten launched Fresh Chef Detroit in 2011. “A lot of chefs don’t like to cook vegetarian or food for restricted diets because it’s more labor intensive,” she says. “But most of my clients come to me because they have an issue they need help with or are trying to eat healthier, and I’m happy to help.” Photo by Monica Breen.
Now during the pandemic, Kirsten says, “Check on your people — the new moms pretending to have it all together. The friends struggling with an illness — or who have ‘recovered’ from an illness — who say they’re fine. The single moms and single dads and caretakers and friends who’ve lost a parent or loved one. Chances are, we’re all going to say we’re fine or don’t need anything. Do something anyway. A card. A plant. A bottle of wine. A handwritten letter. I think no matter what anyone’s situation is — whether they have a public challenge or not — we could all use a little pick-me-up from time to time. And it’s contagious.”

What was your experience fighting cancer like?

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.

“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.

Kirsten Johnson and her daughter, James
Kirsten Johnson and her daughter, James
Kirsten and her daughter, James

Are you able to cook for people now, during the pandemic? How are you supporting yourself and your daughter?

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.

Kirsten Johnson runs Detroit Doulas with Alex Idziak.

Why did you decide to add Detroit Doulas to your entrepreneurial mix?

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.

What 3 jumbles are top of mind for you right now?

1. Money
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.

How do you work through those jumbles and go with the flow?

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.

What are the 40s like for you, and what do you want younger women to know about this decade before they get here?

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.

What have you figured out by now?

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.

Head of Content, Jumble & Flow + Community Manager for Fable. Bylines in Abstract, Etsy, Minted, Pitchfork. Get my newsletter: jumbleandflow.com/newsletter

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store