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Vigilance Throughout My Journey: Zara Johnson

March 25, 2013

Never in a million years did I imagine the incredible impact a breast cancer diagnosis would have on my life. I was always the “behind-the-scenes” person encouraging and supporting others but never wanting to be the focus of attention, yet I found myself thrust into becoming a person with extreme courage and strength I never thought I possessed.

Let me take you back to late fall 2008, when I discovered a lump. I didn’t immediately contact my doctor because several months prior, I’d had a mammogram that didn’t reveal any abnormalities. In addition, I had always thought my chances of developing breast cancer were slim, because as far as I knew, my family had no history of the disease. So, I shrugged this lump off as a pulled muscle. The Christmas holiday came and went, but the lump did not. 

After weeks of not feeling quite like myself, I decided to make an appointment with my doctor, who encouraged me to have the lump examined further. My worst nightmare came true. Tests revealed that the lump was malignant – I had breast cancer. My world as I knew it would cease to be. 

As I began to process what this all meant, my first concern was what I would tell my family, my employer and my friends. I grew up during an era when you never talked about the “C” word. During my childhood, ailing family members would spend their final days at my grandmother’s home while she cared for them. But when we, as children, would inquire why they were there, we always received an evasive answer. Now I often wonder whether some family members may have had breast cancer. Unfortunately, there’s no longer anyone left who can share with me what they know. 

I decided that I would continue the practice of sharing as little as possible about my diagnosis. I would put on a good face for my family and friends. I didn’t want to bring those whom I loved so dearly to that same place of anger, tears and fears that I was experiencing, sometimes all at once. I felt the need to protect them. And so I suffered in silence. 

My battle with this disease began by arming myself with a team of professionals that understood all the latest that medicine had to offer to treat my disease. I learned I had triple-negative breast cancer, and that this particular subtype of breast cancer is not fueled by the hormone receptors estrogen, progesterone and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). The suggested treatment plan was a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy.  

The time I spent battling this disease was one of the loneliest times in my life. It was summer 2009, and I felt like the little kid watching from my window as everyone else got to play outside and enjoy the beautiful weather while I felt stuck inside, struggling to save my life.  

After having fought and won my battle against breast cancer, I began to understand the responsibility I had as a cancer survivor to share what I knew about this disease. I became a volunteer for Y-ME’s helpline until it closed last summer. I also got involved in speaking engagements with local schools and churches, educating not just my family and friends, but also the entire community about breast cancer. I stressed that breast cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence and that early detection is key to survival. Once you’re educated, you become encouraged; once encouraged, you become empowered.

Life after breast cancer has continued to evolve for me. In February 2011 I was approached by a stranger who said that I should compete in the Mrs. Illinois America pageant. Although intrigued by the idea, I pretty much shrugged this stranger off. You see, I’d never competed in any type of pageant before, and being 59 years old at the time, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in seeing a granny in swimwear. I went home, spoke to my husband about the conversation and after a little convincing from him, my sons and their wives, I found myself full speed ahead as I began to prepare for this competition, which was only a few weeks away. 

I competed in the evening gown, personal interview, state costume and swimwear competitions (thankfully all one piece). For my state costume, I chose the Illinois state insect, the monarch butterfly. The butterfly was symbolic, as it represented the different changes a cancer diagnosis brings. A change from an old norm to a very new norm still filled with life. I not only won “Best Costume,” but I also won the title of Mrs. Illinois America. 

I went on to compete at the national level for the Mrs. America title. Although I didn’t walk away as Mrs. America, I did win Facebook’s Fantastic Face Award. I also won something else— an opportunity to extend my influence as a role model in the breast cancer community. Through the national competition and other opportunities, I’ve been able to share my journey and let people know what I’ve learned about living with the disease: Always be vigilant about your health.

Would you like to motivate and inspire others by sharing how breast cancer has touched your life?   Share your story.

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