When Harmony resident, Mary Ann Johnson was told she had breast cancer in 2014, she couldn’t believe her ears. “I was feeling fine. It was a normal day and then you’re told you have cancer…you’re whole world changes in an instant.”
After hearing the news, Johnson called her daughter, who immediately came from the cities to help her mom navigate through the maze of tests and treatments. Johnson knows a bit about cancer since her father died of colon cancer, sisters and brothers on both sides of the family had other cancers and one sister had breast cancer. She also lost a daughter to leukemia in 1972.
“Because there’s cancer in my family, I’ve always been proactive, doing monthly self-exams and getting mammograms every year,” Johnson said. “Then at age 72, my doctor explained that there were several thoughts on women my age having mammograms every year and that some could have them every other year. So I skipped my mammogram in 2013.”
When Johnson went back for a mammogram the next year, they found something. It was Stage 3 cancer. Surgery was done to remove the lump and one lymph node. Then she endured 33 radiation treatments.
All was well for a couple of years. Then in 2016, Johnson was diagnosed with cancer again. “I remember telling my son that it came back and he said, ‘Not again, I thought you were cured!’ I remember thinking, do I really want to go through this again? Then I remembered that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle and I knew I’d be alright.”
This new cancer required surgery to remove 15 lymph nodes, with five having the same cancer that was in the lump that was removed in 2014. This caused concern because it is very unusual to come back in the lump. “You’re a real puzzle,” said Dr. Jumonville, Johnson’s doctor from Gundersen in La Crosse. “I’ve only heard of one other case where the identical cancer was back in the lump again.”
According to the doctors, if the cancer is going to come back, it usually appears in the bones, the brain or some other part of the body, but not in the same lump that had been treated before. “I guess I’m a special case,” Johnson chuckled.
The team of doctors did a lot of research to come up with the next treatment for Johnson. There were several options to choose from, all involving chemotherapy. They decided on four treatments of a “chemo cocktail” which were administered every three weeks. The cocktail was composed of two chemicals called Docetaxel and Cyclophosphamide.
Johnson’s first treatment was at the end of October. After this treatment, her hair began to fall out and in mid-November, she had her head shaved. “I did buy a wig, but it never felt comfortable, so I wore scarfs and hats. I was lucky that it was winter so I could wear stocking caps most of the time.”
By March, Johnson stopped wearing the caps and just let people see how her hair was growing back. “I work at the nursing home and the residents got a kick out of my hair growing back,” Johnson said. “I’d let them touch it. It’s fine and silky, almost like baby’s hair. It’s not very easy to style, but I’m not complaining!”
“The medical staff at Gundersen were absolutely wonderful,” Johnson said. “They made you feel like you were the only person in the world when you were there. I can’t say enough good things about them. I’m so grateful to be alive.”
Johnson also gives a lot of credit to her family, friends and the entire community who rallied to help her in so many ways. Her daughter moved in with her and that was extremely helpful. Today, Johnson feels good and lives a full life. She is a part of the Harmony Cancer Support Group. She always supported the efforts of Relay for Life, but now it has an even greater meaning to her.
“I had a mammogram this past July and am clean,” Johnson said. “I keep doing monthly self-exams as well as see my oncologist every three months. I can’t say enough good about the mammogram mobile that brings this lifesaving service to small towns. I urge people to get those mammograms even if they say it is not necessary. I wonder about that one year I missed and how much of a difference it may have made by detecting it earlier.”
Johnson says that cancer doesn’t care who you are, how old you are or your family history. It doesn’t discriminate! Her advice is to be proactive, get annual checkups and always live life to the fullest!