Standing tall against breast cancer Beulah Wijenberg passes on story of courage and hope to granddaughter Felicia

By Davis Jones

The end of senior basketball forward Felicia Wijenberg’s story about her grandmother leaves little doubt to her stature as a personal inspiration. Its beginning leaves little doubt to her grandmother’s stature in other ways.

“My grandmother stands at 5’11’, so she’s very tall for her generation,” Wijenberg said, who stands at 6’2’. “She was actually a model when she was younger. Her parents were from Norway, and she modeled when she later moved to British Columbia, where my family is now. Looking up to her as this tall, ladylike woman was nice to grow up with, having that kind of figure in my life. Especially being tall myself.”
Beulah Wijenberg stands tall as another kind of role model: one as a two-time breast cancer survivor. The month of October serves as a reminder for Wijenberg of her grandmother’s battle against a disease that claims 7.6 million lives each year. The numbers started making sense to Felicia as she grew older. But her grandmother’s optimism, at least from a young age, didn’t add up.

“My mom told me from a young age that she’d had it,” she said. “But it was more like when you reach the age when you start really learning about it in school, about different types of cancers, and my mom told me, ‘Oh, your grandma had it twice.’ Then I was like, ‘Twice? What? No! She did not survive it twice! There’s no way!’”

Wijenberg said that no one would ever pick grandmother as a cancer survivor based on appearances alone. She speaks of Beulah’s positive outlook as a constant in every chapter of their shared lives, from holidays past when Felicia couldn’t wait for grandma and grandpa’s house to today when Beulah makes sure to track each of her games during the season.

The woman who always dressed in glamorous jewelry and beautiful sweaters for her granddaughter is the same woman who, despite living by herself and suffering from fibromyalgia at 85 years old, hasn’t missed one of Felicia’s games.

“She’ll watch them on livestream, she’ll listen to them on the radio. She’ll do anything she can to make sure she listens to the game,” Wijenberg said. “Growing up, I switched high schools and moved from British Columbia to Toronto when I was 15, and she made sure that she watched my games across the country as much as possible, whenever they were streamed for her.”

During the season, Beulah makes the weekly trip to Wijenberg’s B.C. home to eat dinner with her parents and to catch the streaming game on TV. The game’s finish always brings a phone call from Felicia, who makes the rounds of talking to her father, her mother, and finally, her grandmother. She describes these calls as just one reason why, even after a disappointing game, Beulah is always like ‘a bright shining light at the end of a dark tunnel,’ always offering praise for her play and encouragement for her next game. Wherever that next game is, Beulah follows every move her granddaughter makes as if she sat courtside herself. Even a painful joint and muscle condition won’t discourage her hope to see Felicia play in person someday.

“We had a game two years ago in Seattle, and she was so excited to be there,” Wijenberg said. “She hasn’t made it out to games in San Diego because she can’t sit still for too long because of her fibromyalgia. So she renewed her passport and had it all planned out that she was driving to our game in Seattle. When she went to find her passport, she had hidden it in such a good place that she couldn’t find it. It was so sadly funny because it was like, ‘No, c’mon, grandma! You’ve got to find this!’ She was so sad. She was still able to watch that game online, but she would love to be able to come to the games if she could.”

That Beulah Wijenberg won’t let physical limitations define her follows a similar will: a lifelong determination that a journey through two bouts of cancer won’t permanently darken her skies. Felicia said she is still amazed how independent and youthful her grandmother is for her age; she lives in an elderly community ever since her husband Dick passed away and still makes weekly grocery store runs with Felicia’s brother.

Talks regarding her cancer tend to focus on, not the pain she went through, but the spirit she showed in remaining so positive through the ordeal. Felicia cites this optimism as one of the major reasons why she didn’t understand the seriousness of her grandmother’s cancer until much later.

“I actually don’t remember a specific moment when I found out she had it,” she said. “Which is a testament to her. I think it was when I was really young anyway, but she never let it stop her. Even now, you would never know she survived breast cancer not once, but twice. When you’ve gone through one treatment and you say, ‘Okay, I’ve gotten through it,’ and to have it come back – that can really take a toll on someone’s upbeat well-being and personality. It’s crazy to me that she’s never let it break her stride.”

When asked how her grandmother’s experience has impacted her as a basketball player, Felicia says that her grandmother’s unbroken strides compel her and her teammates to keep up their own during the ups and downs of their season.

“Basketball means so much to me, but this always reminds me that it’s just a game. There are bigger things that go on in life. There has to be an understanding that a bad game or a bad practice is so miniscule in regard to the problems in your life,” she said. “Just knowing that she’s been able to survive something like that twice really holds me in perspective of what those problems really are.”

Those strides to stay positive through adversity take a literal connotation every October, when the women’s basketball team walks the annual breast cancer fundraiser in Balboa Park. The team dedicated its walk to Beulah two years ago. When Felicia called to tell her the news, her grandmother broke down in tears.

“For me to hear her over the phone, how happy she was and how much it meant to her, it made that walk so much more meaningful knowing that our team was wearing her picture on our shorts. To be able to give her that happiness in the form of such a small gesture, that we’re dedicating this walk to her, was really special,” she said.

For now, Beulah’s walk with cancer has come to an end. What won’t stop anytime soon, though, is the shining light by which her granddaughter follows and through which she herself lives and inspires. In more ways than one, that tall stature runs in the family.

“Everyone’s going to have their hardships, but positive attitudes really do help you overcome them,” Wijenberg said. “If you have a positive attitude and you truly believe that you will make it through, you will make it through. Big or small. I definitely can say I learned that from my grandma.”