Sheri Johnson’s career in journalism may have saved her life.
On a cool September day in 2000, Johnson was helping in her daughter’s kindergarten classroom while anxiously awaiting a phone call from her doctor, who would tell her the outcome of her recent ultrasound and biopsy.
The phone call came; the results were in.
Breast cancer, the doctor said.
Johnson’s life had been full of activity. As a journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School, she spent her first half of college working for the State Press, initially as a reporter and then as the assistant city editor.
During her second half of college, Johnson interned at the Arizona Republic and the San Diego Tribune, experiences that helped launch her into a career as a reporter.
Johnson graduated summa cum laude from ASU in 1990, and she was voted Outstanding Journalism Graduate by the faculty.
Nine years later, Sheri traveled to Australia with her husband and daughter to work at a youth camp. When they came back, Sheri became sick with flu symptoms that recurred every month.
A routine mammogram done two years earlier had shown nothing abnormal. But Johnson knew better.
By the end of that summer, the cancer was outwardly visible. All that was left was the doctors’ confirmation of its existence.
When Johnson received the phone call that day in the kindergarten classroom, the first person she saw was her 5-year-old daughter Lauren.
“That’s when the emotions started,” Johnson recalls now, her eyes glistening with tears. “I thought, ‘I’m not ready to go. I need to be a mom.’”
Johnson’s doctors decided to treat her using low-dose chemotherapy, not knowing she would be sensitive to it. After a few short weeks, her body went into starvation mode.
They did the first surgery in December 2000.
It was followed by five more in the next eight and a half years. Her life became a cycle: the doctors would remove the cancer, and the cancer would come back.
Five surgeries. Five occurrences of cancer. Four months of natural chemotherapy, and 350 IVs in Johnson’s right arm alone.
She focused on eating healthily and doing everything she could to help her body heal. Her journalistic tendency to question everything helped her decide for herself which treatment methods would benefit her.
“My journalism professors always told me, ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out,’” Johnson recalls with a wry smile. “That reporter’s skepticism came into play.”
Her research repeatedly led her to the cancer vaccine, a relatively new treatment. With financial help from her church, Johnson received the vaccine, along with a nine-month immunotherapy treatment.
The initial success of the vaccine taught Johnson the importance of being her own advocate for her health, she says.
The vaccine worked for a short while, but in 2003, doctors discovered residual cancer. They told Johnson she should consider radiation.
Johnson already had low blood pressure. She knew radiation might harm her body. So instead she chose to start natural chemotherapy, a less invasive form of chemo that lasted four months.
Her doctors avoided radiation treatments as long as possible, but in 2006, the cancer showed up in six places. They had no choice.
The radiation killed the cancer, but it also killed a quarter of Johnson’s thyroid.
In 2009, the cancer came back in five places, including Johnson’s hip bone. General radiation treatments to eradicate it destroyed the majority of what was left of her thyroid.
This past May, Johnson’s PET scan came back clean and cancer-free. For the moment, her battle is a winning one.
When Johnson talks about the cancer, her eyes shine but not with tears.
“If someone said I could go back 10 years ago and take (the cancer) all away, I would tell them, ‘No, thank you,’” she says with a wistful smile on her face. “I wouldn’t want to have anyone go through it. But I wouldn’t trade it, and I wouldn’t go back.”
Her husband Kurt and daughter Lauren have been her biggest supporters throughout the ten-year battle.
“Being the husband of a wife that is going through that isn’t easy,” says Kurt. “It’s very hard to stand by and watch her go through everything.”
He looks across the room at his wife and smiles lovingly.
“But she’s my hero.”
For 15-year-old Lauren, her mom’s cancer has been a sobering reality for a long time, but it has not held her back from living a normal life.
“When I came home from school, she had so much energy and was so happy,” Lauren says of her grade-school days.
Johnson points to her faith as the cause of her happiness.
“There are days still when I have crashes,” she says. “I can’t move, I can’t talk … but I can pray.”
Anyone meeting Johnson for the first time would never be able to guess what she has been through. Her optimism is visible in her serene demeanor and joyful smile.
“One of the greatest things this journey has allowed me to do is just come alongside people and give them hope,” she says. “I feel for people so much more deeply now.”
Her love for encouraging others, combined with her passion for writing, has inspired her to write a book. Originally, she planned to write about how the natural treatments she researched helped her transition to a healthier lifestyle. But, as time went on, she felt compelled to use her experiences to help others.
“I want to write about the journey in a way that lets me share with others what a blessing God is as you walk through challenges in life,” Johnson says. “I want it to be a book of encouragement and hope.”
Only time will tell whether Johnson’s cancer is gone for good.
“The doctors are calling it a chronic condition,” she says with a laugh. “That’s pretty chronic — cancer!”
Someday, Johnson hopes to take up journalism again, working from her home as an online writer.
She calls deciding to go to the Cronkite School one of the best things she ever did.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer, I did so much research,” she says. “The skills that (journalism) teaches you help you in life.”
She laughs at the irony.
“The Cronkite School prepared me for my cancer research. Who knew?”
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