‘We felt like our world had fallen apart’

After battling colon cancer, a mom of two hones her woodworking and art skills to launch a successful home decor business.

More than most, Heidi Henion believes in signs.

After all, she makes them for a living.

Her wooden signs speak volumes about her life. She hand-cuts, sands and paints words like “grateful,” “blessed” and “believe,” a tribute to her medical journey.

What started as a passion blossomed into a hobby, and now a full-fledged business, Feather and Birch, that sells to thousands of customers a year and has shipped to all 50 states.

The words have been a long time coming.

“It started when I was 12,” said Henion, now 32. “I was having a lot of stomach issues, a lot of pain and a lot of diarrhea. I was constantly going to the bathroom.”

That made life tough.

“As a girl in middle school, that was really hard,” Henion said. “I had just changed schools. It was a hard time emotionally and physically.”

Life-changing diagnosis

Henion started seeing Deborah Cloney, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Diagnosis? Ulcerative colitis.

Dr. Cloney helped keep Henion’s disease in check, but when she turned 19, problems flared again.

Henion had “aged out” of Dr. Cloney’s practice and began seeing an adult gastroenterologist. He ordered IV infusions and medicine to counteract her symptoms.

“He had me getting colonoscopies once a year,” Henion said.

All went well until February 2013, when a suspicious spot showed up. A biopsy confirmed her fears—she had an aggressive form of colon cancer. Her GI doctor recommended surgery with Ryan Figg, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group colorectal surgeon.

“My husband and I, we felt like our world had fallen apart,” Henion said.

Dr. Figg said the risk of colon or rectal cancer increases eight to 10 years after a patient is diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.

“Her final pathology returned with a positive lymph node, making it a stage 3 colon cancer, so she was treated with post-op chemotherapy,” Dr. Figg said.

Cancer was hard, but cancer was a huge blessing for me.

Heidi Henion
Colon cancer survivor

In March 2013, Dr. Figg removed Henion’s entire colon and rectum. He created a J-pouch, a surgically constructed internal reservoir, to replace her rectum. Henion then started chemotherapy at Spectrum Health Cancer Center at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

“They wanted to move really quickly because of the type of cancer it was,” Henion said. “It was super scary and very emotional. Fortunately, my husband is a rock for me. He’s been through so much with me.”

That includes the births of their children, both premature due to Henion’s ulcerative colitis. Her son Isaac weighed only 4 pounds when Henion gave birth four weeks before the due date. Her son Jackson arrived six weeks early, weighing only 3 pounds.

“They were both taken (from the womb) early because they didn’t have enough amniotic fluid to survive, because I was so sick from my ulcerative colitis,” she said.

Return to normal

Dr. Figg performed a second surgery on Henion in October 2013.

“He reconnected everything again so I no longer had to have the ostomy bag,” Henion said. “I actually feel better now than before I had cancer. Because I no longer have a colon, I don’t have ulcerative colitis anymore. Cancer was hard, but cancer was a huge blessing for me. It’s allowing me to have a healthy life.”

And an inspired life.

In May 2015, Henion decided to turn her hobby, her passion, into her life’s work.

“I want to do what I love and what I’m passionate about,” she said. “I quit my job and started making signs full time. It really took off.”

She now has three full-time and four part-time employees in her shop in Byron Center, Michigan, dubbed Feather and Birch.

Amid the whirring of saws and smell of fresh paint, Henion explained that the “feather” in Feather and Birch comes from Psalm 91:4, which hangs on the wall behind her desk: “He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge.”

“We use birch wood in all of our pieces,” she said. “I really love what I’m doing. It’s incredibly fun and fulfilling to see my pieces in people’s homes.”

Many of those pieces are inspirational words or Bible verses.

“I make the word ‘gather’ out of wood that people like to put in their kitchen or living room,” Henion said. “’Thankful’ is a really popular word, too.”

Sitting in her office with her dog, Remi, on the floor next to her desk, and her sister, Julie Waayenberg, painting a piece nearby, Henion said the cancer—and her work—have helped her feel truly blessed.

“I’ve learned that family and friends are so important,” she said. “I’ve learned to work hard and do what I love. And just really, the importance of God and prayer and family.”

Henion’s experiences led her to start a blog, HeidiHenion.blogspot.com.

“I feel like God has put things in my path,” she said. “I’ve really been able to share my story. I kind of use the blog as my journal. People still reach out to me. I think God is definitely using my story and things I’ve been through to help people in some small way.”

To schedule an appointment with West Michigan’s largest gastroenterology team, call 616.267.7414. If you have been diagnosed with cancer and would like a consultation or second opinion, call 1.855.SHCANCER (855.742.2623).


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Comments (6)

  • I really enjoyed your story. I’m sure the Lord is very please with your work and that you give inspirational meaning to it. I will try to see your shop sometime since I live in Greenville.

  • Wow Heidi . we never know where God will lead us to be Vessels . We’re NOT in control. But it’s awesome to know and with great pleasure to say and know who is. I’m so glad to a part of the Family of God. Remember it’s in the Fathers Hands.
    Chin Up, Afe

  • Heidi, I absolutely was drawn in to your testimony. God has better plans and when we allow him to, He sees us through! I am thankful for our merciful God! Thank you again for sharing this beautiful testimony. God bless you. Judy Edwards

  • Thank you for your testimony and your Christian insight. I have a really good friend of mine that went through colon cancer as well. She put off having screening colonoscopy for a while until she finally was convinced by friends and family. They found the cancer and were able to get it and the chemo has put her in remission (Praise God). Getting the word out about scheduling screening colonoscopies is so very important. God Bless you in your journey and I will have to schedule some time to come and see your place as well.

    • Thank you for the amazing story. As a member of Kentwood Community Church, your mom kept us updated in general terms. Father God sure answers prayers😃🙏🏻
      Praying God’s blessing & protection for you!

      • I was delighted to read your story and witness; May Yahweh bless you in these future years as well. I too will look for your sign shop.

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