My name is Shalandra Johnson, and I’m a 37-year-old survivor of cancer, not to mention a traumatic car accident. I’m a mother of four children who, according to my pediatric oncologist, would never be born. I grew up in the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina, and I’ve been here all my life. I’m reaching out because I want to offer others hope when it comes to reclaiming their lives after traumatic incidents.
On March 9, 1991, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that forms in your lymph nodes and attacks your white blood cells, making it hard to fight off infection. I suffered from severe weight loss, fatigue, and a knot that protruded from my neck.
My mother made me an appointment with my doctor, and I was diagnosed with gallstones. However, my mother and aunt weren’t satisfied with that diagnosis, so they made an appointment with our family physician, who was able to see me right away.
Once I arrived and my mother began to explain my symptoms, the doctor was concerned that I wasn’t getting better from my previous visit. So he ordered several tests and suggested that we grab lunch while we wait on results. Upon our return, the doctor informed my mother that it looked like cancer, but he was not sure of the type. The doctor made some phone calls and came back into the waiting room to tell us to pack a bag and head to the hospital in Greenville, where I would be admitted for further tests.
I was so scared, and tried to figure out what I had done to get cancer. Once my mother packed, we headed straight to Greenville. We were greeted by a team of nurses and doctors who began to explain some of the procedures I had to undergo. There was so much going through my head; however, my mother, who seemed nervous as well, took out her Bible and said, “By his stripes you are healed.” She repeated it several times as we waited for our next steps.
I underwent several more tests, which seemed to take forever. Finally, I was on my way back to my room, where I was greeted by my mother and a few other family members who had come for support.
The following morning, the doctors came in with more details of the diagnosis. The cancer was in the fourth stage but had not spread to any major areas of my body. The doctors said they had an immediate plan that they had to put in action. I was overwhelmed and wondering if I was going to make it. The doctors said that chemotherapy, removing the lymph node, and adding a hickman (a little tube that was inserted into my chest to administer the chemo and also to draw blood from) were all part of the treatment plan—and it had to happen ASAP! The cancer had to be treated aggressively.
Several weeks passed. I underwent several treatments, which the doctor assured my family my body was responding well to. However, an issue had come up. I was told that the radiation had damaged my ovaries and I wouldn’t be able to bear any children. I was young, so that was not devastating to me—I just wanted to be reassured I would make it.
Two months or so passed, and my body responded well to the therapies. I was able to go from inpatient to outpatient treatments. My doctor visits went from once a week, to twice a month, to every six months, then finally once a year. I recovered well and went back to something of a social life. I was now in high school, where I met my first love and later found out that the impossible was happening again. A few weeks after I graduated in 1999, I found out I was pregnant…something that I thought I would never get a chance to experience, which had been OK with me.
I had my follow-up visit with my OB/GYN, who followed my pregnancy closely due to my history of cancer. I was informed that I was considered high risk and the baby might not survive—and if it did, it ran the risk of deformities. I was scared, but this was a miracle in itself, so if God allowed this, I felt like it had purpose. I had minor complications, but I gave birth to a healthy 6-lb. baby boy. I married and later ended up with three additional children. Altogether, I had three boys and one girl, all of whom are healthy and full of life.
I’m a single mom now, but my children bring me so much joy. I continued to follow up with my oncologist, and I’m glad to say I have remained cancer-free.
As you can imagine, I had my hands full: working a full-time job, attending school events, and being a mom to athletic boys. It was a lot, but I would place my supermom cape on and handle my business.
On February 28, 2017, I was again faced with a challenge from life. It was about 7:30 a.m. I was headed to work when an 18-wheeler truck ran the stop light and T-boned me.
I was rushed to the ER, where I was listed in critical condition. I don’t recall the accident at all—however, I suffered from an internal decapitation, fractured hip bone, punctured lungs, and brain injury. I remember waking up to my oldest son, who was 17 at the time, standing over me crying. I was overjoyed to recognize a familiar face. I had tubes everywhere, even a trachea down my throat because of my lack of oxygen. The separation of my head and spine had put my oxygen levels at risk, as had the inflammation in my throat. The doctor who later came by was quite amazed at my response, being that I had suffered major brain injury. He told me I was a lucky young lady because people who suffer injuries like I had don’t usually make it to his operation table. I felt blessed but concerned about my recovery.
I spent several weeks in the hospital before anyone actually told me what had happened. My oldest son asked me if I wanted to know, and he showed me a picture of my car. The 2013 Kia Optima was torn into pieces. Looking at the car, I automatically assumed that walking wasn’t an option for me anymore. I was later transferred down to rehab to discover that I would be using a mobile wheelchair permanently. How was I supposed to take care of my children like this? I began to pray and ask God to give me the strength I needed to get over this mountain. I attended physical, occupational, and speech therapy for several weeks.
The hospital offered a support group for people who were going through traumatic experiences.This is where reality begin to set in, but I couldn’t fully accept it. I couldn’t believe I had to start from scratch–learning to do everything all over again, just like a baby.
I had lost mobility on my left side, so when the nurses came in to bathe me, I wouldn’t even try to assist. I would just lie there and let them do the best they could with me. Each day I would put more effort, such as washing my own face, putting my clothing on, and so forth.
I began to hear a voice that told me, “This is not your ending—this is your beginning.” Soon, it was time for me to be released. I had spent about three months in the hospital, causing me to lose my home, so I was now living with my mother. I believe it was being home and not being able to physically do anything for my children that pushed me to experience a miracle. I’m no longer bound to that mobile wheelchair, but up and walking on my own. I’m not as fast as I would like to be, but I’m progressing daily.
Regardless of the giants you might face in life, never give in to them, even if they seem bigger than you. Stand firm, stare them in the face, and accept the challenge. Because with God and faith, I’m here to tell you anything is possible.