Survival story: Hartselle woman believes in education, advocacy after breast cancer diagnosis

Photos by Jennifer Sherwood

While the name Rajane Johnson might be well known in Hartselle and Morgan County, there is a part of the wife, mother and grandmother’s life that she wanted to keep to herself at first: her journey through a surprising breast cancer diagnosis last year, multiple surgeries and a painful recovery.

She’s not staying quiet now though. Johnson takes every opportunity to share her experience in an effort to spread awareness about the importance of proper breast exams and being one’s own advocate.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and according to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, on average, a woman in the United States in diagnosed with breast cancer every two minutes. Those statistics don’t sit well with Johnson whose own mother fought the disease twice.

“I laugh about this, but I change the filter in my HVAC and I check my boobs the first of every month. I felt the knot in September, and I knew. It felt just like my mother’s,” Johnson said.

Having just had a clear mammogram in April, Johnson said she had to fight for the opportunity to have the mammogram she knew she needed.

“Blue Cross and I had a long talk,” she said.

A biopsy confirmed the lump was there even though it couldn’t be seen in a mammogram or PET scan. An ultrasound and breast MRI further confirmed there was a second lump right underneath the first.

After multiple tests and weeks waiting for results, Johnson heard the “C” word she said she knew she would hear all along. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 55 and faced tough decisions on how to fight the disease that had ravaged her mother’s body just a few years before.

Offered a lumpectomy, Johnson chose to undergo a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery to remove as much chance of her cancer reoccurring.

“You can’t remove all chances of it coming back, but I wanted to take away as much chance of it coming back as possible. I never opted for anything else,” she said. The reason for that decision, Johnson said, was seeing her mother’s cancer journey.

“Her cancer came back after 13 years and when it came back, it came back with a vengeance,” she said. “She lit up like a firecracker when we did her PET scan, and I didn’t want that for my kids, so I opted for a double mastectomy. When her mother’s cancer returned, doctors gave a grim prognosis of a year left to live. She lived 36 months, passing away in 2017.

A mere 45 days before her son’s wedding, Johnson underwent surgery that lasted more than 8 hours.

Always the businesswoman, Johnson didn’t let the surgery and her looming recovery slow her down much.

“I was literally selling a house going into the operating room, my now husband, then my fiancé, was so mad because I was working up until the last minute.

“He walked behind the stretcher and I was closing a deal – I wouldn’t let them give me medicine until it was done,” she said laughing.

“The pain was excruciating – and for the first four days I didn’t think I would get through it. The blessing was this, there were big things coming up that I wanted to be present for.”

She made it through, a victory for Johnson who said it was one of the hardest things she has ever had to do. She was able to dance with her son Chad at his wedding, only asking him one thing: “Don’t spin me too fast.”

She continued to slowly recover, getting married in February and finishing her reconstructive surgery soon after.

Now she chooses to speak on the subject as often as possible, reminding women the importance of checking regularly and making yearly mammograms a priority.

Since her diagnosis, Johnson has had six personal friends who have also been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It’s important to know your body and be your own advocate,” Johnson said. “It’s so important to do those monthly checks and those yearly checks.”

Recalling the first time she removed her bandages and saw the scars left by her surgery, she through tears, said she felt devastation and a loss of something she thought she defined her as a woman.

“I felt like I wasn’t a whole person, but I was, it just took me a little while to figure that out,” she said.

Johnson said her support system is second to none, and her friends and family played a big role in helping her through her battle with breast cancer.

Johnson avoided chemotherapy and radiation, thanks to catching the disease while it was in Stage 1, but breast cancer has left an indelible mark on her life in many ways.

She will always be a survivor, and she said she wants more women to be their own advocates for their health and wellness so more stories can end like hers.

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