“What am I going to tell the women in my life?”
This was the first thought that entered Johanna’s mind when she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma on February 28, 2014. Instead of worrying about herself, she was more concerned with the worry she would put on her family – particularly her mother, sisters and 14-year-old daughter.
The past 24 hours had been a whirlwind for Johanna. She’d called Southtowns Radiology at around 8:00 a.m. just one day earlier, saying that she’d found a lump in her breast. They asked if she could be there by 8:40, setting in motion a series of events that would forever change her life.
“I had actually found a lump in my breast a few days earlier while leaning across my desk, but it was so low that I thought there was no way it could’ve been breast cancer,” said Johanna. “Having had lap-band surgery a few years earlier, I honestly thought that the band had become dislodged. I scheduled the mammogram to rule out the possibility of cancer before contacting my gastric surgeon.”
When she arrived at Southtowns, they saw her immediately. After a mammogram and sonogram revealed two areas of suspicion, the nurse coordinated with Johanna’s doctor to arrange an immediate biopsy.
Despite undergoing an increasingly invasive series of tests that she knew might lead to a cancer diagnosis, Johanna managed to maintain her composure. “The nurse at Southtowns was amazing. When she found out that I needed additional testing, she dropped everything and stayed by my side the entire time,” Johanna stated. “I’m prone to anxiety, but she and the radiologist kept me calm and the atmosphere light under difficult circumstances. Instead of letting me go home to worry while I waited for biopsy results, they sent me right to my doctors’ office, images in hand, to see a breast surgeon.”
Before parting ways that Thursday, the nurse asked if there was anything she could do for Johanna. “Yes,” she said, “You can call me and give me my diagnosis over the phone as soon as you know. Whether the news is good or bad, I don’t want to wait for a doctor’s appointment to find out.”
The call came the very next day.
“Having already talked in detail with my husband and son, when I received the news, I thought, ‘How do I break my daughter’s, my mother’s, my sisters’ hearts by telling them that I was sick – and might get sicker – and worse, they could be next?'” Johanna reflected. “I wasn’t worried about myself – I’m a fighter; I was more concerned about the toll this would take on these ladies. This was going to change their world forever.”
Her tumors needed to be shrunk via chemotherapy before surgery was performed. Thankfully, Johanna’s lesions responded well to the chemo and she underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. When her surgical pathology indicated the presence of cancerous cells, Johanna followed her doctor’s recommendation to undergo radiation therapy. “I wanted to be able to tell myself that I did everything possible to ensure the cancer wouldn’t come back,” she said.
Through it all, Johanna was thankful for the support she received from her family, friends and employees. The owner of several Merry Maids franchises, she stayed strong during her treatment and recovery by keeping her schedule as normal as possible. “My mindset was, ‘If I miss a day of work, I’m letting cancer win,'” Johanna continued. “I worked all through my chemo and didn’t miss a day until I had surgery. Thankfully, I have an amazing group of employees who did a great job taking care of the business when I was out. They took that stress away from me.”
When she realized she would lose her hair from chemo treatments, Johanna didn’t feel sorry for herself. Instead, she gave her hair a “going away” party by dyeing it purple and taking a trip to Punta Cana with her husband, son and daughter.
“Cancer has made me a better person,” said Johanna. “Superficial things aren’t as important to me. The people who are in my life now are the ones who really matter. Plus, I have a new circle of friends who have been through the same thing as me. We don’t get together and whine about what’s happened, but we do have a powerful connection that bonds us.” And difficult circumstances aside, Johanna is also very pleased with her reconstruction results.
Johanna’s story is like many other cancer survivors’: despite routine mammograms and regular self-examination, the discovery of her lump was almost accidental. Thankfully, Johanna listened to her intuition and was worked up and diagnosed immediately.
When asked what advice she’d give to other women about breast cancer or screening, Johanna shared this: “As soon as you think something MIGHT be wrong, get it checked,” she stated. “It’s better to be checked 10 times and told that it’s nothing, than to wait and be told it’s much worse than it could’ve been, had you been checked immediately.
“At work, we’re really open about discussing breast cancer; we provide pink t-shirts to the staff and have our own awareness campaign,” Johanna continued. “I even talk to my male employees about it, using a baseball analogy: when you’re ‘sliding into second,’ make sure there are no ‘rocks’ on the infield. In other words, breast examination is both a woman’s AND her partner’s job.”