Cancer Patient Faces Multiple Diagnoses with the Strength of a Warrior

One bout of cancer is enough to contend with, but since 2014 Mary Johnson has had to cope with four different cancers and related conditions.

Despite these tests of her physical and emotional strength, Johnson is doing well today after treatment at Dana-Farber.

“Coming to Dana-Farber gave me confidence because they supported me, and I could feel the treatments working,” Johnson says. “I also wouldn’t have been able to do this without my family. They’ve been incredible throughout all of this.”

A thyroid cancer diagnosis

In 2014, Mary Johnson, then 50, was diagnosed with papillary cancer, a form of thyroid cancer. Before her diagnosis, Johnson was constantly tired, and she discovered a lump on her neck that wouldn’t go away. Doctors ordered blood tests and an ultrasound, which ultimately led to the discovery.

“When the doctor told me, I think I dropped the phone,” recalls Johnson. “It left me both scared and devastated.”

Johnson immediately underwent surgery to remove the tumor. While the procedure left her with side effects that she still experiences today, surgeons were able to remove the tumor. With it, the mom of two hoped to put her experience with cancer behind her.

Mary Johnson and her daughter, Taylor (pre-COVID).

More diagnoses — and a coordinated Dana-Farber care team

Immediately following her thyroid surgery, Johnson was diagnosed with monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). MGUS is a precursor condition of multiple myeloma in which patients have high levels of an abnormal protein called the monoclonal protein (or M protein). Patients with MGUS have an elevated risk of developing the blood cancer multiple myeloma.

Johnson has also contended with multiple skin cancer diagnoses, and in 2019, she was diagnosed with a condition known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a non-invasive form of breast cancer.

For all three conditions, Johnson has turned to the experts at Dana-Farber.

“The way Mary has handled all of this is very impressive, as she has remained solid and strong,” says Caroline Block, MD, breast cancer specialist in Dana-Farber’s Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers. “As a multi-disciplinary care team, we’re always in constant communication with both Mary and all of the people caring for her. That communication is incredibly important to ensure we’re giving her the best care.”

“My mom has always told to me to ‘keep the faith’ and that is exactly what she has done,” adds Kelly Johnson, Mary’s eldest daughter. “She is strong, beautiful, and never stopped believing through this journey. I am truly grateful and blessed to have a warrior mom.”

In addition to her team at Dana-Farber, Johnson adds she’s also had an “ace in the hole”: her family. They’ve been the ones to accompany her to each appointment, celebrate all of the milestones, and support her at every turn.

 “Having a great support system is huge, and it is important for everyone to find someone they can talk to,” Johnson says.

Mary Johnson and her husband, Rich.

Johnson still regularly comes to Dana-Farber, but is not currently on any active treatment. During these appointments she undergoes various tests, including scans and bloodwork, and connects with her care team as they monitor her progress.

Johnson has also received genetic counseling to try and identify any harmful mutations she might be carrying. This can help oncologists better understand her disease, and possibly create a more effective treatment plan.

While her test did not provide any targetable mutations, it could still serve as a valuable asset for her in the future as cancer care continues to evolve and become more targeted.

A unique family pastime

Throughout her journey Johnson says one thing that has been incredibly helpful is watching her youngest daughter, Taylor, compete on the television show “American Ninja Warrior.” The show times competitors as they try to complete seemingly impossible obstacles, a theme the family understands quite well.

The Johnson family loves to come together to cheer on and support Taylor in her competitions. The events are a chance for the whole family to get lost in something that isn’t health-related.

While competing, Taylor cites her mom as her biggest source of inspiration.

“Throughout it all, I’ve watched my mom be a light for others going through dark times,” says Johnson. “It’s been incredibly inspiring, and I’ve now tried to be her light.”