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Isabella de la Houssaye is our guest on Discover Lafayette with host, Jan Swift. Isabella is a native of Crowley and has worked and traveled all over the world, first as an international finance lawyer at White & Case LLP, then as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers, and currently as the co-owner of Material Culture, in Philadelphia, a retail establishment and auction house.
Isabella is also an endurance athlete, mountain climber, and a certified yoga instructor. She has run marathons in every state in the U. S (and then some), competed in 10 Ironmans, and 20 ultramarathons.
A non-smoker, Isabella was diagnosed in February 2018 with Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. Lung cancer disease kills more women and men in the U. S. and worldwide than any other cancer. People mistakenly believe that only smokers get lung cancer, when in fact 65% of people who get new lung cancer diagnoses never smoked or are former smokers. Scientists believe the rise in cases even as the rate of smoking decreases is linked to environmental factors such as pollution driven by fossil fuels and exposure to radon.
We spoke by telephone on Good Friday, April 10, 2020, as she was in her hometown, Crowley, Louisiana, stopping for a brief visit with family before continuing the last 1000 miles of her 3000-mile cross-country bike ride across the U. S. She is on a mission to raise awareness of the symptoms of lung cancer to facilitate early diagnoses as well as educate on the importance of researching effective treatments. She began her trek on March 10, 2020, in San Diego, CA, and finished April 20, 2020, on the Atlantic coast in Jacksonville, FL. While she had originally had plans to bike as part of a larger group and hold cancer awareness events across the U. S., including the Miles Perret Center in Lafayette, the Covid-19 pandemic changed all that. She plans to come back when it’s safe to be in a crowd and hold public events.
Lung cancer is typically diagnosed at late Stage III or IV and there are few symptoms until the cancer has advanced and spread throughout the body. For people with Stage IV lung cancer, the five-year survival rate is less than 10%.
When de la Houssaye was first diagnosed in early 2018, the cancer was in her lungs, adrenal glands, bones, spine, and six tumors were in her brain. She had been experiencing severe Level 10 pain in her sacrum in her back area, and doctors initially thought it must be a pulled muscle because she was so active. No doctor thought that she might have lung cancer, and she had continuing racing and winning her age group in marathons and the Ironman competition. But by the time of her diagnosis, her sacrum was 100% eaten up by tumors and she was bedridden, dying.
Ironically, an MRI taken to diagnose what was thought to be a sports injury revealed tumors in her spine and a CT scan confirmed Stage IV cancer, yet her insurance company didn’t want to approve a PET scan because she was dying. She fought to get this biomarker test and the results allowed her physicians to target the best treatment based upon her specific genetic mutation. Within 24 hours of ingesting Avastin, she felt an immediate difference in her body as it responded positively; she was also able to avoid tough, old-school chemotherapy which would have been much more brutal. The tumors in her spine shrank over the next few months. She was one of the lucky ones for whom the targeted treatment worked.
The doctors told her it would take years for her lost bone mass to be replaced; it was thought that she wouldn’t live long enough to see that. But she started walking with poles, putting as much weight on her arms as she could so she could plow forward. She still had hopes to run marathons in the seven states in the U. S. that had not yet been checked off of her “50 State Challenge”.
Her bones strengthened and later in 2018, the same year as her diagnosis, she competed in a marathon, one step at a time, taking ten hours to reach the finish line. She was able to participate because of the kind work of the Mainly Marathon organization. Her mind turned to other challenges such as her Ironman competitions of the past, but she never thought she would bike again as she was fearful of hurting herself and possibly breaking more bones. And of course, the Ironman Challenge is a swim/bike/run event for only the most elite athletes.
De la Houssaye did recover her strength and with the help of the Ironman Foundation and Ventum Racing’s donation of a triathlon racing bike, she had the opportunity to compete in the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, a longtime dream of hers.
De la Houssaye had begun a daily mindfulness practice ten years before her diagnosis, at a time when she was raising five teenagers. It started with yoga where she gained a physical awareness of her body, and then it became a spiritual practice.” She shares that she learned to take the nasty teens can say and convert it into a “language of love” and not get upset with what they said; they were just doing what teenagers do.
She believes negative emotions of fear, anger, and frustration don’t serve anyone well. If you ask yourself if the negativity helps you, you know the answer is usually “no.”She’s learned to put negative emotions behind her, especially in dealing with her cancer diagnosis; she focuses instead on joy, hope, deep breathing, and gratitude for what she has, all of which help her deal with anxiety and stress. “Mindfulness teaches you to let things go” and to focus on what you can do and make the most of it.
De la Houssaye also counsels us to be conscious of the words we use that can bring up negativity. People talk of being at ‘war with cancer’ but she says, “I’m just trying to co-exist with my cancer. I don’t really need to kill it, we just need to live together.” She also believes it is important to be conscious of any underlying health conditions so that you may experience better outcomes if diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus, or in her case, with cancer.
“The past two years have really been the best years of my life. There’s something about being so close to death and then realizing you’re alive. It makes every second so powerful, you become so mindful of being alive. When you take life for granted, you don’t appreciate how beautiful life is. If I do die tomorrow, it’s OK, I’ve really lived!”
De la Houssaye is now an active advocate for more awareness about lung cancer and she reflects that some doctor should have said, “Oh, you may have lung cancer.” But she never had a cough. She now knows that the experience of pain in the back is a symptom of lung cancer, but not one that many doctors will accurately diagnose. Early detection is the key to increasing your odds of long-term survival.
Signs and symptoms of lung cancer may include *Source: Mayoclinic.org
- A new cough that doesn’t go away
- Coughing up blood, even a small amount
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Losing weight without trying
- Bone pain
As we closed our interview, de la Houssaye spoke of her idyllic childhood growing up in a religious family and attending Catholic schools. She remembered wanting so much to be perfect and then had an epiphany which led to great happiness and an ability to relax. “As a child, I wanted to be a saint. I had big dreams! And one day when I was 10, I realized that was too much pressure. So I decided to do one good thing a day, to make one person a day happy.”
One important step she has taken to help others be happy is through the Afghan Peace Rug Project, undertaken through her gallery, Material Culture. The U. S. Department of Defense approached de la Houssaye to enlist her to partner with women in Afghanistan to make “war rugs” in an effort to rehabilitate the economy. She agreed to the task but only if the artisans would weave images of peace. Some of the images selected revolve around family, nature, trees, flowers, animals, and sometimes school buildings. According to Material Culture’s site, “This series of unique, one of a kind rugs, each depicting the weaver’s vision of the peaceful Afghanistan all hope will emerge from the conflict, aspires to promote peace by changing people’s image of the country and stimulate the economy by replacing “war rug” collecting with “peace rug” collecting.
We thank Isabella de la Houssaye for her inspirational words and the example she sets for how to live life. For more information on her journey, please visit https://bikebreathebelieve.org/. For more information on lung cancer, visit the Center for Disease Control, Mayoclinic.org, or lungcancer.org.