In our February 2008 issue, we shared “the inspiring, often miraculous stories of four women and their life affirming battles with cancer.” One of these women, Barbara Johnson, was the mother of our writer for that particular feature, Scott Albert Johnson. After a long life, Barbara passed away last year. She loved PORTICO’s portrait of her so much that Scott Albert displayed it at her funeral.
Barbara’s story particularly resonates with us this weekend as we give thanks for the women who brought us into this world and have stood by us throughout our lives. The following is Scott Albert’s poignant and inspiring interview with his mother and his recollection of her battle with cancer reprinted from the February 2008 issue of PORTICO.
I can still remember it like it was ten seconds ago. It was February 1981, and I was in the fifth grade. My dad picked me up from school; he had been with my mom at the hospital for what I thought was minor surgery. My teacher had even pulled me aside at lunch to tell me that my dad had called and that my mom was in the recovery room and doing well.
When I got into the car, I could immediately see the truth. My dad spoke with great effort, tears streaming down his face. I’d never seen him cry.
“Son, I lied to you,” he said. “Your mom’s in really bad shape.” He went on to tell me that my mom had cancer and that it might soon be just the two of us.
“Even today, I can’t even say the word ‘cancer’ without tearing up,” says my dad, Al Johnson. “Just thinking about having to tell you that is still unbearable.”
My mom, Barbara Johnson, had gone to the gynecologist to find out why she was beginning to retain fluid in her abdomen. The doctor found a tumor in her uterus and said she must have surgery as soon as possible and that she would have to stay in the hospital until the operation.
On Monday, the doctors removed the enormous tumor and performed a radical hysterectomy. They did not believe she would make it out of the hospital and told my family to prepare for the worst.
“On the third day, my parents, sisters, mother-in-law and husband gathered around me in my room,” says Barbara. “They held hands and prayed, asking God to let me live if it was His will. I honestly believe that moment was the turnaround in my life when God strengthened me. I asked Him to please let me live to see you grow up. I give Him all the credit.”
Five days later, Barbara’s doctor commented on how strong she looked, and he asked her if she felt like having a meal. She eagerly said yes. Two days later, he sent her home to prepare for chemotherapy.
“He told me to expect a very difficult few months,” she says. “They basically gave me eleven months’ worth of chemotherapy every three weeks. They also treated me with Depo-Provera, which at the time was only approved for experimental use with terminally ill patients. I had all the typical side effects – hair loss, nausea and fatigue. We started making plans about selling the house, whether to keep you in the same school. We were planning for my not being around,” says Barbara.
The doctor’s insurance report from later that year still rings out like a bell twenty-seven years later: “Status postop: adenocarcinoma of the endometrium, Stage IV, clinically free of the disease.”
“Every time I came in for my checkup, my doctor would shake his head and say, ‘I just don’t understand how you are still here,” Barbara says. “But there are some answers that are not to be found in medical books.”
“I think that thinks happen in life to remind us to be better people and sometimes to inspire others,” she says.
“Just think of all the things she got to see,” says Al. “She was there for your graduation from high school and college, your wedding and now for her grandchildren. She really had the willpower to live.”