Mount Vernon woman waging second cancer fight58-year-old Mount Vernon woman has battled two forms of cancer since her early 40s.
By: Jennifer Jungwirth, The Daily Republic
Lightning really can strike the same place twice.
Carol Johnson has seen it happen. The 58-year-old Mount Vernon woman has battled two forms of cancer since her early 40s. The second diagnosis came four years after the first battle with the disease.
Johnson has a history of breast cancer in her family. Her cousin, Char Greenway, died from the disease, and her sister, Joyce, is a two-time breast cancer survivor.
“In the long run, I had a feeling it was going to happen to me someday because of the history of my family,” Johnson said. “But I wasn’t expecting it at that early of an age. And with two kids in grade school yet, it was just hard.”
She had a son who was a senior and twin sixth-grade daughters when she was first diagnosed.
Johnson was 44 when she performed a home breast exam on herself and felt a lump. She went to the doctor for confirmation and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Instead of the common mastectomy, Johnson had a lumpectomy. In a lumpectomy, the lump and cancerous cells are removed. She then went through four months of chemotherapy and radiation.
Johnson kept a positive attitude during her treatments. “It was the daily activities of my children,” she said. “Keeping up helped a lot. I always had something to go to.” Also, breast cancer is much more treatable now that it was 30 years ago, Johnson added. “There’s a lot of positive hope there,” she said. Johnson defeated breast cancer that time, but that wasn’t the end of her journey. In 2002, she began having chronic back pains. She attributed the pain to the strenuous yard work she had been doing that week.
But then she developed a severe cough. A trip to the doctor, however, showed that she had seven fractures in her spine and blood tests revealed she had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. The plasma cells are white blood cells responsible for the production of antibodies. This form of cancer attacks the immune system.
By the time the doctors discovered she had the rare form of cancer, 75 percent of her plasma cells were infected.
“This one threw me for a loop,” Johnson said.
And as far as she and her doctors know, multiple myeloma is not hereditary and her case was not linked to her previous breast cancer diagnosis four years earlier.
“There is no cure for this cancer,” Johnson said. “It’s just the hope of staying in remission.”
The average length of remission for those with multiple myeloma is six and a half to 10 years.
Johnson had two stem cell transplants. The first put her in a six-and-a-half-year remission. Her own stem cells were used for the transplant through a procedure called aphaeresis, which is similar to kidney dialysis.
The cancer came back, but the gene was mutated and made it harder to fight. A second transplant was performed in January 2010, but by that time, 85 percent of her plasma cells were infected with the disease.
In January of this year, her blood work showed abnormalities, but she was not showing symptoms.
“So, I’m not in a true remission,” Johnson said.
She is currently on continuous low maintenance chemotherapy treatment and taking an organic supplement, curcumin, which she started in February.
“I have a lot of aches and pains,” she said. “And I’ve shrunk in height three inches, too, from the fractures in my spine.”
Johnson hopes that being an honorary co-chairwoman for today’s Heart and Sole event will aid in spreading the word of multiple myeloma for those that are unfamiliar with the form of cancer.
“You know, they just haven’t come up with a lot of answers yet for this type of cancer,” she said. “They are doing a lot of research on it.”