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Johnson, challenged by cancer, emerges as a survivor

Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2010

Today may be the last day of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but it's certainly not the last for breast cancer awareness. As anyone who's faced the disease knows, the battle can't be forgotten. However, facing off with the consequences can still end in victory, both medically and spiritually.

Like most cancer survivors, Kathie Johnson of Juneau remembers getting the bad news for the first time. But she also knows there's a happy ending.

Johnson was diagnosed when she was 32 and living in Haines. She traveled to Juneau to consult her doctor.

"They found some suspicious lumps. I had them before but they were just cystic tissue. This one was really different, so my doctor sent me to the University of Washington," Johnson recalled.

However, a monkey wrench was thrown into this plan when her scheduled doctor died two weeks before the appointment.

Things looked hopeful again when she saw an article in Time Magazine that she refers to as a Godsend because there was an article about a women's breast clinic in Beverly Hills.

"I called the doctor and she talked to me directly and made an appointment for Jan. 2," Johnson said.

"I went in and they did a whole gamut of tests that they don't even have in Juneau," she said. "She found the two suspicious lumps were very deep. She said I probably wouldn't have found them until it was too late because they were just so deep."

Tests were done the next day at a Santa Monica hospital. The lumps were malignant.

Johnson immediately underwent bilateral mastectomies. "Which means I had both of them removed," she said.

Now that Johnson was cancer-free, she was still faced with the consequence of losing her breasts. At that point in her life, this was a hard pill to swallow, so she opted for implants. This was a decision she would regret.

"I was young and dumb and stupid and thought the next thing I needed was reconstruction surgery because I was young and single. I didn't," she said. "The process of reconstructive surgery was really bad decision and I would not recommend it now."

Those first implants ended up with a silicone leak, leading to a reaction and fever. Johnson saw a doctor at Bartlett Regional Hospital and was placed on six weeks of antibiotics.

"To make a long story short, I had to have first implants removed and tried second implants that wouldn't rupture," she said.

She still got ill and developed some arthritis.

She consulted an internist in Seattle who advised these implants were a problem because the silicone from the first ones caused damage. She was diagnosed with lupus and degenerative connective tissue disease.

She returned to Santa Monica to consult the doctor who performed the first implants to remove the new ones. She was outfitted with a third set that she hoped would solve the problem, as they contained water rather than silicone.

"By this time I'd suffered with these things back and forth," she said.

"All in all, I must have had five surgeries. It had gotten to where I could hardly walk. I just wanted to get up and do all the things I did before."

It turned out her body was reacting to the outside of the implants, plus the problems with the original silicone. She had her third and final set removed, but learned of another procedure that could be the solution.

She met with Dr. Greg Dostal, who performed a TRAM flap, which consisted of using her own body tissue to rebuild her breasts, eliminating the need to use foreign substances.

"In just a month I was off all my medication. I really think Dr. Dostal saved my life," she said.

She said within a month she felt great and has ever since with no recurrences. She was having a good time and enjoying all the hobbies she still does today, like fishing, hiking and horseback riding. She said these days her favorite thing is spending time with her family and is just happy she's able to.

The experience taught her that, even when you're young and appearances can seem more important, there should be other priorities.

"I've been free of cancer all these years and the only thing I would say is I would never recommend for anyone to have reconstruction surgery. Anyone who loves you will respect you the way you are. If not then he's not the one because he should respect you for the inside and not the outside."

Her upbeat attitude made an impression on her doctors. She said after the bilateral mastectomies, the doctors asked her to speak to some women in the process of having breast removals. She said Dostal also asked her to speak to a young woman considering the TRAM flap, who ended up having it done.

Today, at 61 years old, Johnson is active and happy. She's retired now after working in doctor and dentist billings and owned Accu-Billing.

Johnson's family remains her greatest joy. She says they were the biggest motivation throughout her journey of recovery. She has two children, Tonya and Brent, and six grandchildren, Vinnie, Derek, Keely, Austin, Brandon and Jesselyn.

She also has two sisters, Rhonda Johnson and Connie Vos. Her parents are Helen and L.G. Beshears.

Johnson said those battling breast cancer need to have priorities on recovery from a medical standpoint more than a vanity one.

"I know they've done a lot of new and modern things nowadays but advise not having any implants. You're better off going to a doctor that uses your own tissue to construct new breasts."

"Have a good attitude and pray a lot," she advises.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.



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