Like many women, Doris Johnson made an appointment every year for her mammogram. As a long-time ICU nurse, Johnson knew the medical reasoning behind the yearly exam but she’d never really thought much about it. In 2009, Johnson’s mammogram revealed that she had cancer. From that point on, she was surrounded by a community of physicians, nurses, and cancer survivors dedicated to helping her fight cancer. Now, 5 years later, Johnson is one of those survivors helping other women through their fight with cancer.
A retired army nurse who moved from Virginia Beach, VA, to Magnolia in 2009, Johnson had been seeing a physician at the Wilmington VA Medical Center. Her doctor referred her to Dr. Wendy Newell, of Wolf Creek Surgeons, Dover, for her breast surgery.
“It was important to me to be close to home,” Johnson explained. “I knew that cancer was a long road, and I had family in the area, so I wanted to get my treatment nearby.”
Dr. Rishi Sawhney, of Bayhealth Hematology/Oncology Associates, managed Johnson’s cancer care. He gave Johnson the good news that her cancer had not metastasized, or spread, into her lymph nodes. In consultation with Dr. Newell, Johnson decided to move forward with a mastectomy, hoping to prevent the cancer from recurring years later. During the mastectomy surgery, Johnson had a tissue expander—an inflatable breast implant that stretches the skin and muscle to make room for a permanent implant—inserted into her chest. Dr. Dimitrios Danikas, of Bayhealth Plastic and Aesthetic Surgery, performed the implant. Two days later, Johnson attended the Go Pink! health fair in Dover, still wearing her surgery bandages. Co-sponsored by Bayhealth and the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition (DBCC), the event raises awareness of breast health.
“As soon as I had my surgery, I was a cancer survivor,” Johnson remembered. “I wanted to be there with the other survivors.” Johnson met Lois Wilkinson, DBCC program manager of education and survivorship, at the event. This connection would prove to be very important for Johnson in the coming years.
For the next two years, Johnson settled into her new life as a cancer survivor. She cared for her elderly mother, who had also recently moved to Delaware to be near Johnson and her family, and she became active in the breast cancer community. When she saw Dr. Sawhney for a routine appointment in November 2011, she told him about her upcoming family reunion. Her entire family was planning to gather at Disneyland, in California, over the Christmas holiday. Her mammogram and chest x-ray were normal that day, but another test revealed that one of Johnson’s cancer markers was elevated. The cancer had come back. Faithful and determined, Johnson mapped out a plan with Sawhney.
“I’d been down this road before. I knew I would beat this disease. I trusted in my doctors and in the process,” said Johnson.
After her trip to California, Johnson began radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Bayhealth in early 2012. She felt comforted by working with the same nurses who had cared for her in 2009. “The nurses were like my friends along this journey,” Johnson said. “They were awesome. I was treated like an individual and taken care of at every step.”
Johnson joined a support group that helped her through her second battle with cancer. She appreciated the other women’s advice on how to deal with hair loss. She had to re-learn how to do her makeup. “Acceptance was a daily process for me. Everyone has her own journey through life. It was hard, but I had to keep moving forward,” Johnson remembered.
Once her treatment ended in August 2012, Johnson felt lonely. Her days had been shaped by cancer treatments and checkups. Her mother’s daily schedule had also kept her busy. The Bayhealth survivorship program helped Johnson adjust to her new routine. She credits Bayhealth Nurse Navigator Pamela Frady, RN, OCN, for organizing her program. “It’s like calling a friend. Anything- the littlest twinge, the tiniest concern- you can call them up and they’ll reassure you. You know you aren’t alone,” Johnson said.
Johnson also participated in the Virtual Cancer Genetics Clinic research study “Telemedicine: Delivery of Cancer Genetic Services,” a joint effort between Bayhealth and the University of Pennsylvania. A researcher at Penn interviewed Johnson via video-conferencing software to determine whether genetic counseling was the best approach for cancer care in her family. This is a study that is finding effective ways for genetic counselors to provide patients with cancer services.
Looking back on her first diagnosis five years ago, Johnson said, “I’m a survivor. I live each day at a time. Everyone has a scar of sorts, but you move forward.”