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A strange blessing

Johnson’s battle with breast cancer inspires new lease on life

October 14, 2016
Adri Sietstra ( ,

A?strange blessing that's how Fort Dodge native Pam Johnson, an 11-year breast cancer survivor refers to her journey through breast cancer.

Johnson, 60, was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in March of 2005. She had 14 lymph nodes removed during a lumpectomy, then went through chemotherapy and 12 weeks of radiation.

"I wasn't surprised at the diagnosis," said Johnson, "but you're still never ready."

Article Photos

Pam Johnson in her downtown Webster City shop, The Big Picture.
Photo by Adri Sietstra.

Johnson found the lump herself while in the shower.

"I knew. I just knew in my heart of hearts it was going to be cancer," said Johnson. "I waited about a month before I went to the doctor to prepare myself to hear it. Which may or may not have been a very good decision, but I knew I was going to hear it, so I just needed to be ready to hear it."

Even though Johnson saw the diagnosis coming, she knew she would get through it.

"I knew when I had it, it wasn't my time to go. I just never felt like it was my time to go," said Johnson.

"It was a messy couple of years. I had cancer, my dad died very unexpectedly, I got separated, I turned 50, I was downsized from my corporate job, I got divorced, and I had a hysterectomy all in two years," said Johnson. "There was a lot going on."

Johnson's biggest supporters throughout her diagnosis and treatment were family and friends. Johnson credits her daughter, Anna, who was nine at the time of her diagnosis, as her biggest supporter and motivator during her battle with cancer. Anna, now 20 years old, is a junior at the University of Minnesota.

Her neighborhood in Eden Prairie, MN was a close second.

"People that I barely knew just came out of the woodwork with support," said Johnson.

"They would bring over meals," said Johnson. "My neighborhood, when I was diagnosed to when I had surgery to the time I finished radiation, the neighborhood brought us three meals a week from March through November."

"It's just really strange where the support comes from," Johnson said. Places you would expect and places you wouldn't expect."

Johnson began losing her hair in May of 2005.

"May Day was right when I began losing my hair," said Johnson. "So for May Day they bought me a huge basket of hats."

Johnson tried wearing a wig for a brief period of time, but felt more comfortable without it.

"I wore it one day to work and it just felt so not me, so I just went bald," said Johnson. "I wore baseball caps through the whole time. I encourage people to go bald. It generates a lot of conversation."

A lot of people approached Johnson while she was bald. Many individuals opened up about their own expereinces with cancer, whether they were undergoing treatment or talking about th loss of a loved one to cancer.

"It generated a lot of conversation about the disease and how prevalent it is," said Johnson. "Everyone knows someone that's been affected one way or another."

Johnson went to the doctor every three months for the next two years after finishing radiation, then six months, and then a year for check ups. Each appointment came back with a clean bill of health. Johnson was at a loss when she was done with check ups and treatment.

"They tell you you are cancer free after surgery, but that seven-year mark and that ten-year mark are big markers," said Johnson. "I don't think I have ever felt done. I still think about it all the time. It's always in the back of my mind."

The moment when Johnson felt like she had defeated her cancer was at her 50th birthday party. Although, according to Johnson, every step forward while battling breast cancer was a small victory.

"Finishing surgery is a milestone. Finishing chemo is a milestone. Finishing radiation is a milestone," said Johnson. "I think it's really important to celebrate those pieces along the way."

Johnson took her experiences and journey through breast cancer and became a rock for other women going through it.

"You can't really relate to something unless you have gone through it yourself," said Johnson. "That's how cancer is. Once you've been there, you understand a lot more of what it means and how you can help other people."

"The biggest thing I think you can do to help someone that is going through breast cancer is to tell them what you are going to do to help them," said Johnson. "The last thing you want to do is ask for help."

Johnson was encouraged during her journey by friends and neighbors who brought over meals, ran errands, and sent cards with words of encouragement. She encourages anyone who knows someone battling cancer to assist with tasks like these and come up with other ways to help any way they are able.

"What I tell people now is tell whoever it is, you're going to bring over dinner next Wednesday," said Johnson. "Or I am going to come over. Have your grocery list ready and I will go and get groceries for you. Tell them what you are going to do so they can say yes and accept the help."

Now Johnson is throwing her energy into her new business and taking care of her mother.

Johnson owns The Big Picture in downtown Webster City. She opened the store July 23. The Big Picture will be having a grand opening in November. The store gives 20 percent discounts to teachers and librarians. Johnson also explained that The Big Picture recently started accepting consignment items.

"I think small businesses and a literate population are two important things," said Johnson.

Johnson's passion for literacy led her to start Reading Goddess, a start-up focused on leveraging the power of women who like to read make a difference in literacy. She is currently working on two books. One is focused on the power of music and literacy, the other was inspired by her daughter. She hopes to one day have Reading Goddess Publishing put out her two works.

Johnson's diagnosis was one of her main motivations for starting her own business.

"When you're sick it really does allow you to take more risks," Johnson said. "I became a bigger risk taker and said I'm going to do this."

Before moving back to Fort Dodge last year, Johnson worked in human relations. She worked with large companies and individual businesses doing consulting work.

She moved back to Fort Dodge a year and a half ago to take care of her mother, who has dementia.

"Here I am. Lots of twists and turns later," Johnson said.

With everything life has thrown her way, Johnson has made it her mission to take risks and dream big. Her diagnosis gave her the courage and the push to open a new store and work towards her dreams.

"I felt more like it was a strange blessing," said Johnson, "because it really does allow you, when you get a diagnosis like that, to move forward because if you're not going to do it now, when are you going to do it?"



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