Dr. Jennie Bennett achieved her dream of earning her doctorate when she earned a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Houston in 1993.
It was a hard-won battle toward her goal that included fractured family relationships, financial struggles, dysfunctional relationships with men and a sense of emptiness that followed her despite a lifetime spent as a member in her Christian church.
Even after completing her degree, she discovered that many of her friendships had deteriorated over the years she spent focused on the studies which consumed her life.
It would only be three short years later that she learned how important those friendships and emotional bonds really were when the now 67-year-old received a breast cancer diagnosis in 1996.
Her journey from heartbreak and illness to a faith-filled life free of cancer led her to create Reconstruction of a Survivor in 2007, a nonprofit and support group for women who can lean on each other during the toughest time in their lives through emotional vulnerability and searching within to heal old, childhood wounds that have kept them from truly loving life, even with cancer.
She believes her own emotional rebirth through finding forgiveness for her mother and sister was just as pivotal in her cancer remission as the mastectomy of her left breast the same year she received the diagnosis.
“That uneasiness stays in your spirit, it stays with you,” said Bennett of the years she spent holding on to resentment toward her mother. “It doesn’t help you beat cancer.”
Her support group has trained facilitators who teach specific lesson plans and multiple locations throughout Houston and some in Baytown, Humble, League City, Pearland, Sugar Land, Texas City and Lafayette, La.
The Board of Advisory for the nonprofit includes U.S. Congressowoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents the 18th Congressional District of Texas; Dr. Angel Rodriguez, director of the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Clinic at Houston Methodist Cancer Center; and Dr. Lovell Jones, founding co-chair of the Intercultural Cancer Council, the nation’s largest multicultural health policy group focused on minorities and the medically underserved and cancer.
Through her close relationships with Methodist staff and other leaders in cancer treatment in Houston, she was able to gain the attention of Susan G. Komen, the international breast cancer research and policy foundation.
Bennett says the Komen organization often refers patients to her group for the financial and emotional support Reconstruction of a Survivor offers to applicants.
Bennett was a rising academic in the mid-1990s. Her dissertation was in mathematics and she was teaching and directing a program for African American and Hispanic middle and high school students in math and science at U of H. She began authoring math textbooks, lecturing throughout the country and writing mathematics curriculum for the state of Texas. She had control of her finances and was achieving success and recognition that she had never experienced before.
But it wasn’t until cancer brought her face-to-face with her troubled relationship with a mother she felt squandered her late-father’s earnings, and a sister who was largely absent during the cancer discovery and surgery that involved life-threatening complications.
“I had to call my mother and say, ‘I forgive you,'” she said as she exhaled and leaned back into her chair. “It was so powerful.”
Now, she’s an education consultant for math curriculum and instructors, and has brought that background to the classes in her support groups that meet monthly. They reflect the kind of self-awareness that helped her find peace and positivity in a dark time.
Lesson plans include the latest in healthy eating, exercising, various forms of self-care and, of course, the emotional work that freed her.
Fittingly, the most important for healing is, she says, “I will forgive.”
“I have the women write a letter to whomever they’re not forgiving,” said Bennett. “We don’t send it, we do it for ourselves.”
Another class, “It’s Okay to Cry,” was transformative for Patricia Oropeza.
“I’ve sat in this room and cried so many times,” said Oropeza in the conference room at Houston Methodist Outpatient Hospital in the Texas Medical Center where she meets once a month with the group.
The 55-year-old has metastatic breast cancer which has spread to her liver. Originally diagnosed in 2012, she learned the cancer was growing the week of Thanksgiving in 2014.
“I know I was losing my faith,” she said. “And I knew I was depressed. But I learned you have to appreciate life, and I cherish life now.”
Through encouragement from the women in the support group, she went on a Christian retreat during her cancer treatment.
“It was the best thing ever,” she said. “Every time I heard a testimony it was about forgiveness. I came home with a whole new outlook and I had to forgive a lot of people.”
Oropeza works at a rental car location near Hobby Airport and has one son in his 20s who lives with her.
“My son was there for all of it,” she said as her smile faded and tears welled in her eyes. “He’s supposed to have his own life. He’s been a big help.”
Although Bennett is a Christian and most of her lessons have connections to scripture from the Holy Bible, she says people of all faiths are welcome to the class and can go through the same healing process.
She said there have been Jews, Muslims and women of all ages.
The youngest, said Bennett, was a 25-year-old physician’s assistant student who eventually led classes. Professionally, she went on to work with newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.
A decade after her own diagnosis, Bennett’s relationship with her mother, who now suffers from dementia-like symptoms, has improved and Bennett sees her almost every day in the nursing facility where she lives. Things between she and her sister, however, haven’t gone as well.
The two haven’t become close, but recently her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer too.
“She finally called me and said, ‘What do I do?,'” said Bennett. “I have to do forgiveness everyday.”