Cancer fight over, but smiles continue

Her smile is gone, but it won't be forgotten.

Julie Houlker

Julie Houlker

Her smile is gone, but it won’t be forgotten.

Julie Houlker, co-author of Choosing to Smile, passed away last Friday after a long battle with cancer.

She smiled right to the end, said friends.

For 15 years, Houlker fought off three forms of breast cancer, had two mastectomies on the same side, and when the cancer returned five years ago, it had spread to her lungs and was in her bloodstream. She was given no more than two years to live.

But Houlker was a fighter.

“Julie was very determined and when she said she was going to do something, she did it,” said longtime friend Michelle Rickaby, co-author of Choosing to Smile.

Houlker refused to let cancer slow her down.

She continued to travel the world, explore B.C., and compete on a cancer survivor’s dragon boating team. She continued to go on getaway weekends with her “soul sisters,” and to plan romantic outings with her husband Graham, and to shop and bake with her beloved granddaughter Abbygail.

She also inspired the world over with Choosing to Smile, a triple autobiography written by Houlker, Rickaby and Glenda Standeven – all friends, all cancer survivors.

“She left a footprint on everyone’s heart,” said Standeven.

“Anyone that knew her is feeling this loss,” added Rickaby. “And now so many people who know of her story but never had a chance to meet her, they’re also really feeling this loss too.”

On the Choosing to Smile Facebook page, which has 4,192 friends, comments have poured in.

“She was a brave one. One of the good ones. I will remember her as being courageous.”

“I regret not having the pleasure of meeting her, but she will always be with us in spirit.”

“Our hearts are heavy with this loss, but we are so grateful for our time with her. Short as it was, the impact is everlasting.”

Rickaby, also a dragon boater, remembered her friend’s gusto in the boat. For a woman who was “five foot nothing” in height, when she pounded down on the drum and commanded her paddlers, they listened.

“She was a small package, but when she gave the calls, you heard her clearly and you responded,” said Rickaby.

Fellow dragon boater Allison Bradley said her favourite memory of Julie was at the Penticton Dragon Boat Festival held in September.

“She was so full of energy and encouragement that we moved mountains that weekend just for her,” said Bradley. “She exclaimed at one point after a particularly great race, ‘This is so much better than any medicine ever!'”

Two months later, however, Houlker stopped treatments and checked into Chilliwack Hospice.

She had spent more than a year in the ring with chemotherapy, had suffered repeated fevers and toxic infections, had no appetite, no energy. Her body was shutting down.

It was time to focus on the quality of life,” she told The Progress in December.

She made a list of things she wanted to do: She wanted to see another birthday, see another Christmas, go to her granddaughter’s Christmas concert, have another Survivor’s Dinner, celebrate another wedding anniversary, see her book make it to the Canadian best seller’s list.

She did all but the last two.

Her 35th wedding anniversary is in February, and Choosing to Smile has sold approximately 2,500 books, halfway to the 5,000 needed to make the best seller’s list.

Her friends are continuing the dream.

“We’re going to fulfill her bucket list,” said Standeven.

A celebration of life service for Houlker is being held on Saturday, Feb. 5 at the Best Western Rainbow Country Inn from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

kbartel@theprogress.com