Breast cancer survivor tells her story

Ellen Johnson (lower right) is joined in solidarity with colleagues Stephanie Montenegro, Marc Wilde, Lynda Frank, and Katie Furlong.

by Lori Harasta

Asked how Ellen Johnson felt when she first found out she had breast cancer, she said, “Numb. Later that night, I asked my husband, ‘Did he say I have cancer?!’”

It started with a lump she found about three years ago. Biopsies in three areas of the tumor were negative, but it is the protocol of Kaiser Permanente to do surgery to remove tumors, whether or not they test positive for cancer, so Ellen complied. The next time she spoke with the doctor, she got the awful news. It was Stage 3 of an aggressive strain of cancer. The doctor was unable to get all of the cancerous tissue. Further tests showed that the lymph nodes on that side were all affected. She was going to have to have a mastectomy.

Ellen resisted at first. But reality set in when the doctor told her, “I’m trying to save your life!” She left the doctor’s office, went back to her car and cried.

First, there was chemotherapy, which made her tired. A dear friend, Suzette, accompanied her to every chemotherapy treatment. Except for the side effects, Ellen actually enjoyed the sessions. “It was an odd sense of community, all of us there sharing the experience of having cancer. The nurses were amazing! There was no sense of talking down to any of us. I enjoyed hearing their banter and teasing one another. They were upbeat, sensitive, and genuine.” The chemotherapy was followed by surgery and then radiation.

Ellen retired recently from her position as Grants Manager for Livingston Memorial Visiting Nurse Association. One of the things that made it easier for her to get through the treatments was strong support from her co-workers and the ability to work a flexible schedule. “My co-workers picked up the slack for me. Having their support made it so much easier to make it through.”

Her hair fell out and as a way of educating others about breast cancer, Ellen chose to wear scarves or hats instead of a wig. Indeed, conversations were opened up. She was surprised at the warm encouragement of fellow survivors she encountered who asked how she was doing and shared their own cancer experiences.

Cancer has changed Ellen’s outlook. “Anytime we face the possibility of our own mortality, it changes our priorities. I have been given the gift of seeing things more realistically. It has been a real wake-up call.”

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