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Meet Links for Life Cancer Survivor Carrie Johnson

By Genevieve Branco

If you know Carrie Johnson, then you probably know a fiery, independent, confident woman who has a heart that overflows with gratitude and faith.

It’s no wonder she can be so inspiring to others after what she’s overcome. Carrie’s journey with breast cancer started with her mother’s diagnosis when she was only six years old, and Satan, being the liar that he is, whispered in her ear her entire life that she too would get breast cancer and die, just like her mother had.

So naturally, finding a lump in her own breast should have brought overwhelming fear. But Carrie tells a story of the peace that passes all understanding, as the Holy Spirit ministered to her with reassurance and love and guided her through the journey from diagnosis to treatment, to now being cancer free for 8 years. Here’s
her story.

To understand Carrie’s journey with cancer, a little background is required. See, Carrie had given up her six-figure salary as a
biomedical engineer when God called her to the mission field in Ethiopia in 2011. Having only brothers, her dad had raised her to be able to change her own tires and
take care of herself. As a USC alumnus, she was accomplished and appreciated in her field.

She prioritized her own wellbeing, lifting weights and eating right, and had been taught by her parents to care about her health. Faith had always been a part of her life, as both of her parents were Christians, and she was raised in church.

When she was called to the mission field, her doctor sat her down to discuss the importance of breast self-examinations. Particularly with Carrie’s family history of breast cancer, she couldn’t neglect
her own health on the mission field.



Carrie’s mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer when Carrie was six. Although she had a double mastectomy, the cancer returned in her bones and Carrie lost her mom when she was only ten years old, a formative time in a young woman’s life.

From six to ten, Carrie’s life was affected by her mom having cancer, and naturally, this became a large part of her childhood memories. She found comfort in Jesus’s words in Luke 12:4-7, which says, I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.  Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

So it was in 2011, entering the mission field, that her physician told her that she had to map out her breast self-examinations, complete them regularly, and that it would be the only way she would be able to tell if there was anything new there, in her breasts. Her missions would be up to four years long, and cancer is much more likely to be a death sentence in Ethiopia than in the United States. But Carrie proceeded with God’s plan for her life and left the safety of the United States to follow her calling.

It was during a self-exam in 2015, that Carrie perceived a change in her breast. Because of Carrie’s background as a biomedical engineer, she repaired a lot of medical equipment on the mission
field and interacted with several medical professionals who were also there for various missions and charity works. This was a benefit for Carrie because she had people to turn to, and they advised her to
make a six-hour drive to a see some Australian medical professions about the lump she had found.

Once she arrived, the Australians had her drive three more hours to Soddo Christian Hospital, a missions-based hospital. Upon their examination, it was determined that Carrie did have a mass, and the doctors advised her to return home to California for her biopsy and treatment, urgently.

Even while reflecting on these early days of medical care, Carrie remembers how God placed all the right people in her life. In fact, while at Soddo Christian Hospital, Carrie met a pediatrician from
Ventura, California who had a friend who was a doctor in Bakersfield. Because of the connection she made that night in Africa, she started growing a assembly of support across the world in Bakersfield – and even as her plane landed, she already had a voice mail from the doctor who would become her primary care physician throughout the journey she was about to face. Carrie’s faith was already playing a large role in the way she received every piece of information she heard. Even the night after the physicians at Soddo Christian Hospital confirmed the lump, Carrie stated she heard the voice of the holy spirit confirm to her heart that although the lump would be cancer, she wouldn’t die from this illness.

Looking back, Carrie recalls her cancer battle as both a difficult time and a sweet time, as her relationship with the Lord became stronger than ever because she felt God’s comfort and saw how He
was steps ahead in every situation.

Carrie’s diagnosis and treatment story was like others’ stories. She was referred to get scans, then a biopsy confirmed that the two lumps she had in her left breast were cancerous. She had one that she had found herself and another one that was hiding below, that Carrie refers to as a “miracle” because she would not have been able to find the second one during a self-examination. (Carrie also
mentioned that she was blessed that they weren’t late stage.) She was also sent for genetic testing, being that she had a strong family history, but the testing that they did was negative for any known genetic cause.

Carrie had tremendous support from her father, although she felt bad that he had to endure hearing this diagnosis a second time in his life. After they were given the news, they went to get a maple bar across the street and take it all in. Her father told her she could beat the cancer and Carrie too felt like she would be ok. She recalls that things moved very fast from that moment forward.

Her nurse navigator called before she finished her last bite of maple bar, ready to get her started at the cancer center. She ended up following the advice of her oncologist and getting a double lumpectomy on her left breast with a small sample of lymph nodes removed for testing. That was followed by chemotherapy
and radiation treatments.

As many would agree, the chemotherapy was the rough part. Not only did Carrie experience extreme weakness – a tremendous change from her normal state of independence and strength, but she lost her hair, her eyelashes, her eyebrows – all her hair – which caught her a little off guard. But Carrie says that she thought she would be vainer about it than she was. Carrie asked herself why was she trying to hide that she was a cancer patient? It pained her to be in the cancer center and see how some of the other women seemed ashamed about their hair loss or depreciated appearances. To make
matters worse, it was summertime in Bakersfield, and the wigs were simply hot. Not to mention, Carrie remembers that her scalp was painful and sensitive during the period of hair loss, reminding her of when her ponytail was too tight! For Carrie, comfort often won out over vanity – even at the USC football games she attended. She found that a light head covering was usually better than a wig during summer, and discovered that people were warm, compassionate, and even funny in regards to her naked scalp.

The support Carrie had was comprised of her family (her father, step-mother, and three brothers), her church family who organized a meal train and spent hours providing emotional and physical support, and the Links for Life survivor group. Carrie noted that being around people who understand what you’re going through was vitally important during such a difficult time.

In March of 2016, Carrie went back to the mission field for an initial four-month stint, with short hair and a big smile. She was eager to get back to her Ethiopian friends and hoped to start her own mission team soon. The native people who had been her friends were so happy and excited to see her! Again, her gratitude was renewed as she realized how fortunate we are to
have healthcare in the United States.

During her time away, one of her Ethiopian friend’s fathers was diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, while Carrie lived, he passed away, not having the access to the healthcare that Carrie was so blessed to have. So what take aways does Carrie want to share with others? Well, there are a few.

Carrie was grateful for the support that she gained from the American Cancer Society and Links for Life, such as makeup and education that helped her learn to draw on the facial features she lost during the chemotherapy. She also recalls how the Links for Life support group meant so much to her in her hour of need. These kinds of resources are central to survivors and this experience impacts Carrie’s volunteerism today. (Spoiler alert! While Carrie continues to mentor new survivors by helping with the survivor group, she will also be the 2023-2024 Links for Life Board Secretary!)

Next, Carrie wants to tell you – let people help you. For Carrie it was asking for Gatorade, cheese-its, and toilet paper, mostly, but whatever you need, people want to help. Carrie knows that it’s humbling to go from being fiercely independent to asking for and accepting help, but it was humbling and necessary and brought with it a tremendous amount of growth for her. Carrie’s advise is to keep a list of things you need help with, so that when people ask you can easily tell them.

And finally, Carrie shares that during her time of tragedy, she drew closer to the Lord than she had ever been. It was one of the sweetest times of her life, even though it was one of the worst. Sometimes we don’t know about our own morals, values, and integrity until they are tested. Being an engineer by trade, Carrie likened it to a bridge – how do you test a bridge? You put weight on it. That’s what trials and tribulations are in this world. They are simply weight applied that helps us grow stronger.

Although Carrie didn’t want to minimize the challenge that she or anyone else helplessly undergoes during a cancer journey, one thing she learned was that she could control her response to the challenge. In her words, do we have to sulk through our diagnosis, or can we walk in victory? Carrie walks in victory every day, living the triumph of a woman who does not ask, why me, Lord? But instead runs joyfully towards the plans that God has for her life.