Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

October 30, 2012

Fighting cancer while her husband fights war

VALDOSTA — For Patricia Johnson, nothing was worse than having her husband, Master Sgt. Charles Johnson deployed to a war zone in Afghanistan. Aside from being her husband of 16 years, he is her best friend. They enjoy each other’s company so much that they rarely leave the house without matching. Friends affectionately refer to them as the Johnson “twins.”

However, in October 2010, it got worse in ways that neither Johnson nor her husband could have ever prepared. After all, how could one possibly prepare for being diagnosed with breast cancer?

Johnson was supposed to have her regularly scheduled mammogram in July 2010.

“I kept putting if off,” said Johnson.

Like many working Air Force wives with children, Johnson was busy. She finally got around to it in October. Everything was pretty routine in Johnson’s eyes, that is, until she got a call two days later asking her to come in the next day for an ultrasound.

“I’m just laying there,” said Johnson. “I look and I remember seeing the black dot.”

She knew something was wrong because they weren’t having her get dressed and sending her on her way. Next thing she knows, she’s being referred off base to Valdosta Surgical Associates to have the lump biopsied.

After the biopsy, the doctor sent the tissue sample for testing. Two of the three testers confirmed cancer. At that time, they were pretty sure it was cancer, but there was still that chance that it could be a horrible mistake, but it wasn’t.

“A couple days later he called me back and said it was definitely malignant,” said Johnson. “My husband was in Afghanistan at the time.”

At that time, Charles had been in Afghanistan for 45 days.

Johnson called the Red Cross on Monday, Oct. 25 to receive a case number. Because of the cancer and having no family in the area, they were going to try to bring Charles home.

At that point, Charles had been deployed for 45 days. It was his second deployment to Afghanistan since being stationed at Moody Air Force Base in 2007.

“They told me they were trying to get me out of the first thing, smoking,” Charles recalls.

This was no lie. His commander returned 30 minutes later.

“They said pack your bags,” said Charles.

That next day, Oct. 26, at 10 p.m., Johnson was picking up her husband from the airport.

“I was like woo! Go Air Force!” Johnson said.

It was bitter-sweet for Johnson and her husband. They were together again, but under horrible circumstances.

That next day, Charles accompanied his wife to the surgeon to discuss her options. He barely had time to adjust. After going through two base attacks while in Afghanistan and all of a sudden waking up back in the states and in a doctor’s office talking about his wife’s cancer, it was surreal.

“He did really great,” said Johnson. “To come from a war zone and be able to take care of a spouse with breast cancer.”

Charles was strong, but silent. Johnson recalls him returning home more quiet than when he left. His guard was still up, but this time he was protecting his wife instead of his country.

“I didn’t cry because I was basically trying to be strong for her,” said Charles. “It was a lot more difficult than I thought.”

“We chose the lumpectomy,” said Johnson.

From the beginning, Johnson knew that’s what she wanted. She wasn’t prepared for the prospect of having no breasts. However, she met with specialists, listened to her options and even still, knew that a lumpectomy was the fit for her.

On Nov. 17, Johnson underwent surgery. The next day, she came home.

While the cancer was self-contained, they believed they got it all but the hardest part was yet to come. The next step was chemotherapy.

“I really didn’t want to do chemo,” said Johnson.

She had her first treatment on Dec. 30.

“I had chemo every three weeks,” said Johnson. “I felt like I was dying.”

Everything in Johnson’s body hurt. At times she couldn’t talk or even walk. Charles had to carry her to the bathroom that was just feet away from her bed. All she could do was cry, pray and recall Bible scripture.

By the second treatment, her hair began falling out. That’s when the cancer became real for Johnson. Until that point, she didn’t look sick. She didn’t look like she had cancer.

Johnson recalls having a friend over and while they were sitting in the living room talking, she was just pulling out clumps of hair and laying it on the couch without even thinking. Her friend just stopped and looked at her.

“Don’t you think it’s time to shave it?” Johnson recalls her friend asking.

This was the moment Johnson had been dreading. She had been wearing a scarf on her head for weeks thinking that it was holding the hair on her head.

Charles was the one that shaved her head. While in matching shirts and with worship music playing in the background, he began.

“He just kept telling me how pretty I was and kissing me on my cheek,” said Johnson. “God just gave him the right words.”

It was difficult for Johnson. She was a studs girl. She didn’t like to wear big earrings. She felt like she looked like a boy.

“I remember just trying to cope with the thought of no hair on my head,” said Johnson.

When Johnson made the decision to stop the chemo early, it wasn’t just about the hair. Her quality of life was depleted. She was miserable and she wanted to become herself again.

While the doctor tried convincing her to continue the treatment, Johnson couldn’t bear the pain.

“I had no idea that I was going to go through that much pain and need that much help,” said Johnson. “That was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”

Johnson only did three months worth of her four-month treatment plan. However, it was over there. Johnson also needed radiation.

The type of cancer Johnson had — called IDC — was very aggressive and common among African-American women.

“They had to treat it with everything they had,” said Johnson.

Johnson started radiation on April 25, 2011, and she had her last round on June 15, 2011.

“I had seven weeks,” said Johnson. “I had it every day.”

While Johnson is not officially declared cancer free, she is right at her two-year mark and is declared in remission, meaning, they don’t see any cancer right now.

“Right now, I go back to the doctor every six months,” said Johnson. “Soon I will go just once a year.”

Though the chemo is done, Johnson still grapples with these side effects. She also has to remain on a largely organic and plant diet.

“I tend to do organics,” said Johnson.

Aside from the cancer, Johnson has to continue dealing with the challenges of being a military spouse.

Her husband still works, still gets deployed and even just recently returned from a five-month deployment to Korea.

Just as anyone in the military knows that every day is a battle for freedom, Johnson has the added pressure of every day being a battle for her life. However, through family and her faith in God, she has made it through and her outlook and her spirit remain strong, and in a few years, she will be able to proudly say she won.

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