Relay co-chair is a cancer survivor

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 20, 2006

By Kari Lucin, staff writer

On her 23rd birthday, doctors told Jill Johnson she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that attacks part of the body’s immune system.

&8220;They basically gave me a 20 percent chance of living, and I just said &8216;I’m not going to die.’ I looked at my doctor that day, and said &8216;I’m not going to die,’&8221; Jill said.

Jill didn’t die. She began to fight the cancer that had already invaded most of her chest, going through eight months of intense chemotherapy that weakened her immune system. She participated in a trial study that gave her double doses of seven different chemotherapy agents &045; agents that are hard on the body even in regular doses.

Though the after-effects of the chemotherapy left Jill with painful avascular necrosis &045; bone death &045; in her upper legs, she is thankful to be alive.

&8220;The pain is different every day,&8221; Jill said. &8220;It limits me in some ways, but I’m here, and life is good.&8221;

She was going to school when she was diagnosed, and went on to finish her degree. Now Jill, 34, works as an early childhood special education teacher in Albert Lea, testing kids to see if they qualify to receive early childhood special education.

&8220;I just love little kids and families, and just being able to help them,&8221; Jill said.

Doctors told her she would never have children after her chemotherapy, but Jill defied the odds again, giving birth to her son Luke, now age 6.

&8220;It shocked all the doctors,&8221; Jill said.

Luke just finished kindergarten at Lakeview Elementary School.

Jill, meanwhile, has become one of two honorary survivor co-chairs of the American Cancer Society Relay for Life, which raises money for cancer research. She’ll give a short speech to help kick off the Freeborn County version of the event on Aug. 11, and though she isn’t sure yet what she’ll say, Jill has plenty of good advice for people fighting cancer.

&8220;It’s going to be hard. Take it day by day, and do as much as you can for you,&8221; Jill said. &8220;That makes you feel good, but let yourself know that you can have bad days too, and allow yourself to have those bad days because they’re going to come. But you have to stay focused and positive too.&8221;

Keeping the end date of her chemotherapy in mind helped Jill stay optimistic, and she had plenty of friends and family to support her. She tried to live her life as normally as possible while she was being treated, even though her weakened immune system wouldn’t allow her to work with the kids she cared so much for.

&8220;I did what my doctors told me to, but I just had to lead my life as much as I could, because that was what would get me through,&8221; Jill said.

She still recalls the day she lost her hair from the chemotherapy.

&8220;It’s a traumatic day. It’s such a petty thing, but that’s how it sets you apart from everyone else,&8221; Jill said. &8220;You just get a different look to you, you look pale, you look sick. In a small town, people definitely know what you’re going through, that was a hard part.&8221;

Jill got a wig, though she never wore it. She wore hats until her hair began to grow back, and then, even when it was very very short, she stopped wearing the hats.

&8220;I was like, &8216;I don’t care, I have hair, I don’t care how long it is,’&8221; Jill said.

Returning to society after her chemotherapy was also difficult, after a long detachment from society.

&8220;It just takes a while to feel like you’re not different anymore, and to just feel comfortable,&8221; Jill said. &8220;And nobody wants you to feel that way. You just feel you’re going through so much, you just feel different. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just you.&8221;

Though Jill had met her husband Jim before she was diagnosed with cancer, the couple didn’t start dating until afterward. Now Jim does mortgages at Home Federal Bank, and he and Jill are part-owners of Jake’s Pizza in Albert Lea.

Jill was involved with the Relay for Life last year, and though the necrosis in her legs makes it difficult for her, Jill will again walk a little bit this year anyway. She will also sell caramel corn as a fundraiser at the event, where cancer survivors, their family members and the family members of victims who did not survive the fight will gather.

And of course, there will be a few people there who are still fighting.

&8220;Stay strong, because you have to fight it,&8221; Jill said. &8220;This is your fight. And you need to win.&8221;