Georgia's Online Cancer Information Center

Stephanie Johnston: Your experience depends on who you surround yourself with

It surprises Stephanie when she gets choked up recalling the beginning of her cancer survivorship journey in 2018. One who typically keeps feelings close to the vest, she suddenly experiences some of the same emotions brought on by memories of what she felt back then. But the feelings Stephanie had those first days after she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer may not be the feelings you would expect her to have. Yes, she felt fear. She was definitely afraid and also sad. But when Stephanie began to open up to people to share her devastating news, she had feelings of overwhelming awe – awe over how people wanted to help her, wanted to support her and simply be there for her.

Stephanie was not used to that. “I didn’t even tell my children at first because I didn’t want them to think of me as someone who needed help,” she explains. “I am the one everyone leans on. I’m the one they look to for strength. It was very hard for me to let go and lean on others.”

In fact, it was a coworker and friend that first pointed out to Stephanie that she had a lump in her throat. “It took a lot of courage for her to tell me that I may want to get it checked out,” recalls Stephanie. “Looking back, that means a lot to me. But at the time, I was dismissive and in denial.”

Stephanie didn’t immediately get it checked out, but thanks to “being watched over by a higher power,” as she says, she was already scheduled for her annual wellness visit with her doctor the following month. It was then her doctor found the swollen node on her thyroid and recommended tests.

Thankfully she did realize she needed people around her, even just to get test results. “You need someone there for emotional support, but also someone to listen to the details. I was so lucky I had my husband next to me and my brother on the phone during my visit with the doctor to get the results. I needed them both.”

Stephanie says she also realized she was being a bit unfair by not sharing the news with those she loved the most. A friend told her that keeping it from her children was taking that decision of knowing and from wanting to help from them. 

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” she admits, because she was focused on how to attack the problem instead of her feelings. She had been trying to deal with it all herself and thought it was better for people not to know.

“I finally realized that it’s okay to be vulnerable and that I actually drew strength from people knowing.”

Once Stephanie’s healing process began, however, it became very clear that she’d need yet even more support. It’s ironic in this case that Stephanie is first telling this story publicly in a series called, “Voices,” because there was a time when she didn’t know if she’d get her voice back. The surgery to remove the cancer put a strain on her vocal chords, leaving her unable to speak. During those fearful, questionable days, more support came from coworkers who sometimes had to speak for her during meetings.

“Being back at work helped me to feel normal again, but my colleagues and my support system really made sure I remained feeling that way.”

Now Stephanie advises other people diagnosed with cancer to not wait to ask for help – not even to wait for a full prognosis like she did, because you need people every step of the way.

“Your experience depends on who you surround yourself with. People want to be there, so all you have to do is allow yourself to feel that love.”

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