In life, we all face battles that can either make us or break us – depending on how we face that battle. I’m Deb Johnson, 9 years 5 months breast cancer survivor. No, that’s not how I introduce myself to others, but that is what goes through my head each morning that I see a new sunrise. I am a PINK WARRIOR – A SURVIVOR. Let me tell you my story, in hopes that it will help someone else.
The battle that my family, my husband, children, brothers, and extended family will never forget began on October 17, 2008. I’m sitting at my granddaughter’s dance class and my phone rings. My mother had been in a car accident. We rushed to the hospital to find that she was bleeding internally and needed immediate surgery. After waiting for 4 plus hours, the doctor came out to inform us that he had removed the largest tumor he had ever seen, and that massive tumor turned out to be stage 4 ovarian cancer. I can still remember the stunned expressions on the faces of my brothers. We had no idea that cancer wasn’t done with our family.
November 17, 2008, I woke from a breast biopsy to have my husband, not the doctor, tell me that I had breast cancer. I thought I knew how my Mother felt to hear the words, “you have cancer”, however, nothing can prepare you to hear those words said specifically to you! I cried, I prayed, I got angry and then I put on my big girl panties and faced the battle ahead – determined that I would win this battle. I have always had a yearly mammogram since age 40. In my 2007 mammogram there was a shadow that the doctor said was probably nothing, but we would keep watch on it. One year later, it was still there, the doctor was still not concerned because there was no breast cancer in my family. Three months later I was doing a self-exam and found a lump. I called my doctor and insisted that they perform a biopsy. You must be forceful if you feel like something is off and insist that your doctor listens to you. As my oncologist said, cancer must start somewhere and for our family, it started with my Mother and me. Since my diagnosis I’ve had an aunt and 3 cousins diagnosed with breast cancer.
Although I was diagnosed in November, due to the holidays and fighting my insurance my surgery to remove the cancer wasn’t until January 31st 2009. This surgery would determine the treatment I would have. During my surgery the waiting room was packed with family and friends, including my 70-year-old Mother. There to support and encourage my husband and three daughters.
Four hours after my surgery started, the doctor informed my husband and family that I had stage 2 cancer. The cancer had spread from the initial point, under my nipple into two lymph nodes. My right breast was totally removed, along with all the tissue and two lymph nodes. Then began the recovery stage and the fight to live. I was released from the hospital 24 hours after having my breast removed. Somehow, I was offended/upset/ticked off by the fact that they slice/dice and send you home in less that 24 hours. I went home with a drain tube and pain meds. I couldn’t lay flat, I couldn’t use my arm, I couldn’t get up off the sofa without help – but, I was alive! Upon having the drain tube removed I started the exercise to regain use of my right arm. You’ll never know how thankful you become for the small things, like lifting your arm over your head.
My doctor recommended chemo, not radiation, because of my Mother’s ovarian cancer. Did you know that Ovarian and breast cancer are linked? The risk for my 3 daughters is very high because of a grandmother and mother with these two cancers. Because of my overall excellent health and age, it was decided I would not have a port. Instead, the chemo drugs would be injected by an IV. For the next four months we lived on “cancer time”. Everything else took a backseat as “we” fought to live. I say “we” because my husband, daughters, and family were there to fight with both my Mother and I. I have four brothers and one of them told me, “You worry about getting YOU better, and we’ll worry about getting Mom better.”
For the next 4 months the typical week for Mother and I was as follows:
Tuesday – Blood work drawn to get white blood count and numbers (by April both Mother and I had to have blood drawn from our foot because our veins were in such terrible shape from the chemo drugs. Yes, it’s as painful as it sounds.)
Tuesday – Friday – Start the drug regiment to prevent a reaction to the chemo drugs and help ease the nausea associated with it. Mine consisted of 12 steroid pills per day and 4 nausea pills.
Thursday – Arrive at oncologists, have bloodwork drawn and by 9:15 the chemo drug started into my body. Chemo drugs do not know the difference between good cells and cancer cells – so it gets them all.
Friday – back to get a shot to boost my immune system. (this one-shot cost $6500.00) By 2:00 p.m. on Friday I was in bed asleep and would remain there until late on Sunday. Waking only to take my medication.
My first chemo was scary. I tried not to cry on the way to the oncologists, but the tears fell, and I couldn’t stop them. My husband held my hand and struggled not to let his tears fall. My daughters took turns going to chemo with my husband and I. Just to be an encourager, and I later found out to make sure Mom was going to be ok. After my first chemo my hair started falling out – so like most cancer patients, I decided to buzz it off. My youngest daughter buzzed it for me – we laughed and took silly pictures, but I later found out she cried when I left. So, it’s not just the cancer patient that is going through a rough time. It’s hard on the family to watch the patient go through the ravages of the disease and the drugs to fight the disease. And, during this time my youngest daughter miscarried her first child – 2008/2009 were tough years in our family.
There are other side-effects to chemo, other than losing your hair. I lost feeling in the tips of my fingers, making it difficult to pick things up. My nails became loose and I lost a few. I ended up at the ER one cold, snowy night with impacted bowels due to the combination of chemo and my pill cocktail. The most frustrating side-effect is chemo brain. Yes, chemo brain is REAL. I have always been on top of things and able to multi task, but the drugs took that away from me. My immune system, even today, is very weak. So many side-effects that people don’t know about. When you see someone without hair – just remember that is one of the simple issues they are facing.
Looking back on the side effects of chemo we do have some laughs. Not having feelings in your fingers makes one clumsy. My daughter, who worked 5 minutes from my house, walked in to prepare my lunch one day. Only to find me sitting in the floor, surrounded by spilled soup, crying. She plopped down with me, we cried then we giggled because I was supposed to be waiting on her to fix my lunch but being Ms. Independent I wanted to do it on my own. The second laugh would be my attire when I went to the ER at 2 a.m. in the morning. I had on green pj’s; brown house shoes, a big pink floppy hat and my black dress coat. At the time I did not care how I looked, but for my family it was funny knowing how particular I was/am about my appearance. The third would be regarding my wig. When I returned to work for a few hours a day I wore my wig. Not for me because being bald didn’t bother me, but for others. Some people are very uncomfortable with any signs of cancer. I got in my car to go home, opened my sunroof and as I picked up speed, the wind picked up my wig and I caught it right before it flew out the top. From that day on I did not wear another wig. I wore scarfs and hats, but no wig. But, I digress…back to the story.
On April 23, 2009 Mother and I took our last chemo treatment. That was a day of celebration. As I stood in front of my mirror later that evening – bald, only one breast, 25 pounds heavier from all the drugs, suffering severe chemo brain, I cried. Not for the ravages that disease and drugs had done to my body; but because I was blessed to be alive.
On May 23, 2009 (my 53 birthday) Mother and I threw a big “Chemo is Over” party. We had over 100 people come celebrate with us. Folks drove in from Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. These were the folks that prayed for us, sent us cards, brought dinner by and encouraged us. God blessed us with a great celebration of being alive! Little did we know that less than one year later, on May 21, 2010 Mother would lose her battle. The cancer spread to her brain and even though she had radiation it did nothing to slow the progress of this very aggressive cancer. Watching your Mother lose a battle that you started together is tough. You find yourself asking God, why did I survive. As I struggled to regain my strength and tried to figure out what life post-chemo is, I also mourned my strong, courageous Mother.
The new norm for me was mammograms every 6 months for the next two years; a bone density test yearly; taking Tamoxifen daily to increase my odds of surviving 5 years. I am currently off the drugs; have a mammogram yearly and bone density every 2 years. So even though the cancer treatment is over, the effects are still there. I’ll be honest, I still get uneasy as I wait for the results of my mammogram; I still panic if I think I feel a lump in my remaining breast – I’m only human. I did get a tattoo (totally out of character for me) on my left wrist with the breast cancer ribbon and the word SURVIVOR above it. Any time I feel scared I look at that tattoo and remember that I am blessed. My husband wore a pink bracelet from the time I was diagnosed until the day I was 5 years cancer free. My 3 daughters all have the breast cancer ribbon tattoos as a reminder that we are blessed.
Fast forward to today – 9 years and 5 months post chemo/cancer. I have been blessed to walk in numerous breast cancer walks; raised funds for research; participate in “Shake Your Boobies” fundraiser that my youngest daughter holds at her Fitness Center, watched the births of grandchildren # 2-6, and # 7 in December. My husband and I were blessed to retire at age 58 to spend more time together and do the things we love. To travel to as many waterfalls and beaches as we can. To slow down and take the backroads instead of the fast lane.
As a 9 year cancer SURVIVOR, I proudly wear pink, proudly proclaim myself a Warrior and give thanks to God for a husband that has held my hand through one of life’s toughest battles; who loved me through the bad and the ugly and tells me daily that I’m beautiful in spite of the lasting effects of those 3 little words, You Have CANCER. I have 3 daughters who are high risk for either ovarian or breast cancer, and I try to remember that God is in control and will take care of my daughters. Thankfully, their doctors keep close watch on them, and the research and drugs are much better now than 9 years ago.
Has breast cancer changed me? Changed my outlook on life? A big YES! I can no longer multi task and remember things the way I once did. I have no immune system. But, you learn to adjust, and I no longer stress over the little things. Gilda Radner, another cancer fighter, said this in her book – “What cancer does is, it forces you to focus, to prioritize and you learn what’s important. I mean, I don’t sweat the small stuff. I used to get angry at cab drivers. It’s not worth it….and when somebody says you have cancer, you realize it’s all small stuff.” I so agree with Gilda – lots of things we let stress us are small and most times stupid. As my husband tells people, we learned to live life – to enjoy each moment and to count our blessings. The blessings I have had in the past 9 years and 5 months are so numerous it overwhelms me. People say, oh you’re cancer free??? I tell them what my doctor told me, “I will never say you’re cancer free, I’ll simply say you’re in remission.” So, I may wake up tomorrow and fight the battle again – but, for today I’ll say, “Thank you, Lord for this day you’ve given me.”
“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” Robert Brault.