Tammy Owens Johnson’s story: Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at 41

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This is Part II of a three-part series about St. Agnes Hospital’s efforts to fight breast cancer.

For Tammy Owens Johnson, life was good. The 41-year-old had a good job as a teacher’s assistant in the Baltimore County Public Schools system, did not have any health issues, and was happily raising three children. But one day, Owens Johnson felt a suspicious lump in her breast, and life as she knew it quickly changed.

“I always went to the doctor’s to be checked, because I have always had fibrocystic breasts,” said Owens Johnson, noting a condition in which there is lumpiness in one or both breasts. “But one area kept getting bigger and was sore. That is how I found out I had breast cancer. Going to the doctor when I did was important, because I was already at Stage Three, which was critical.”

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. (NBCF), once a person is determined to have breast cancer, the healthcare team will determine staging to communicate how far the disease has progressed.

NBCF points out that stages are determined by factors which include the size of the tumor within the breast, the number of lymph nodes (small, bean-shaped organs which produce and store blood cells that help fight disease and infection), and whether or not the breast cancer has invaded other organs within the body.

NBCF describes the stages as follows: Stage 0 and 1 are the lowest numbered stages and represent the earliest detection of breast cancer development. At Stage 0 and 1, the cancer cells are confined to a very limited area. At Stage 2, the breast cancer is still in the earlier stages, but there is evidence that the cancer has begun to grow or spread. It is still contained to the breast area and is generally very effectively treated. At Stage 3, the breast cancer is considered advanced cancer with evidence of cancer invading surrounding tissues near the breast. At Stage 4, the breast cancer has spread beyond the breast to other areas of the body.

A patient at St. Agnes Hospital, Owens Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011.

“My initial reaction was being emotional and scared,” recalled Owens Johnson. “I rarely even caught a cold. I was very healthy, and to go from that to something that serious was mind-blowing. I asked, ‘why me?’”

She added, “My life changed drastically. I was a working, independent mom taking care of everything and everybody and just doing my thing. I worked hard to make sure everyone’s lives, especially my children’s lives, were going well. I never asked anybody for anything, but that stopped when I got sick.”

Now 45, Owens Johnson has undergone chemotherapy, radiation, surgical removal of both breasts and reconstructive surgery.

“My left breast was removed, and then in 2012, they removed my right breast because they found a lump there,” she said. “I had to give up my job because of my chemotherapy treatments, and I am not physically able to do things like I used to do. When you are used to being independent, it’s hard when you find yourself having to depend on others.”

Owens Johnson’s breast cancer is in remission. She credits her status to God, a supportive family, the care she received at St. Agnes, as well as early detection.

St. Agnes has a Comprehensive Breast Center and is one of the first 135 hospitals in the U.S. to be fully accredited by the National Accreditation Program of Breast Centers (NAPBC).

“Everything is in one location, and everyone is on the same page,” said Owens Johnson.

The hospital also offers various supportive services including Kids Camps and Teen Camps to give children of patients a healthy outlet to discuss their feelings and connect with other children going through a similar situation.

“At the time of my diagnosis, my children were ages 11, 14 and 20, and at different levels in terms of the news,” she said. “My oldest child really didn’t want to talk about it, and my baby girl didn’t know what to say. The camps helped me to explain everything to them and kept their minds occupied.”

According to Owens Johnson, she now helps to take care of her mother.

“I often talk to other women with breast cancer to encourage and help them,” she said. “I also help to take care of my mother, who is battling another form of cancer. Because of the care I received at St. Agnes, my mother wanted to go there. I also have changed a lot, including my diet. Going through something like that changes your life. Without God, I don’t know what I would do.”

She added, “I encourage all women, to please go and get checked. Many of us don’t. We take care of everyone except ourselves, but we have to take care of ourselves too. Getting checked when I did, helped save my life.”