Fight for life makes living it even better

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By Cindy Simpson

Devastating fear, tears and fighting determination.


Alma Johnson knew all those emotions the day she learned she had breast cancer in 2009.

“I went to the doctor knowing something was wrong. I had a sharp pain — and then I felt it. I am a fanatic about breast exams,” Alma said.

It took her a few days to take action that winter.

“You have to process it two or three days before you finally say, listen something is going on,” she said.

Alma at first hesitated to say anything to her husband, Frank. She went to see her doctor before telling him.

“She likes to go to her doctor appointments by herself, because after she likes to go shopping,” quipped Frank.

He went with her when she learned the results of her biopsy.

“She came out crying,” Frank said.

Alma remembered, “I knew it was bad when they took me in this room. There were all these boxes of Kleenex, and I think this isn’t good. It was so typical. She said, ‘honey you have breast cancer,’ and then I could see her mouth moving, but I could not hear any other words she said.”

The Johnsons drove straight home, speechless.

It didn’t last long.

“We came home, and I cried. Then I said, ‘I’m starving to death, and we will beat this. Let’s go to Burger King’,” Alma said.

“We both had to dry our eyes. You have to go through the crying mode to get to the fighting stage,” Frank added.

Today, it’s tradition to visit Burger King in celebration of another year cancer free.

The devoted couple went through the struggle together, from her lumpectomy in 2009 to the following radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Thompson Cancer Survival Center.

“We are so blessed and thankful it had not metastasized and gotten out of there,” Frank said. “She was stage one.”

One particularly hard memory for Frank is when Alma was losing her hair.

Describing it, he struggles with emotion.

“She asked me to shave her head — the hardest thing I had to do in my life, and I still get choked up about it,” Frank said.

Today, Alma knows the relief and appreciation of getting older.

“I’m fixing to turn 60, and I love it, and he’s fixing to turn 61. I have loved every year. I think it is just great,” she said.

The Johnsons and their church family, Orchard View Baptist Church, are among the most ardent participants in Roane County Relay for Life.

The annual overnight event on April 19 on Roane State Community College’s main campus in Roane County is among the countless ones in the nation that work to raise money for the American Cancer Society.

The Johnson like that the money from Relay goes to fund cancer research.

One of the medications Alma had been on, in fact, is a direct result of Relay for Life-sponsored research.

The American Cancer Society also uses Relay for Life funds to help the less fortunate have access to services such as mammograms and colon exams.

“It took a good swift kick in the pants with breast cancer for us to get up and do something in the community,” Alma said.

She said Relay enthusiast Kathy Cole got her started after she was on the mend.

“She said now it is time for you to do Relay,” Alma remembered. “I said, it is. It’s time.

“This is our fourth year.”

The church team does very well.

“We have raised $15,000 for three years,” Alma said, noting that the team is up to $3,062 so far this year.

“You just got a church that just stood behind us, but everyone has been touched by cancer,” she added.

“This is a tribute to my wife. People are on our team because they love and respect her,” Frank added.

Alma can still recall the day her husband went to church and shared the news about her illness.

She wasn’t up to going that day, but she knew they were thinking of her.

“It is the most loving little group of people,” Alma said. “The moment he told the church what was going on, you could feel the prayers. I felt something funny and said they are praying for me right now. I just had no doubt.”

Frank credits those prayers for helping his wife through her illness.

“There was an awful lot of good people doing a lot of good praying for my wife, and that has made all the difference,” Frank said.

The Johnsons are enthusiastic about Relay today, and Alma points up at a row of pictures of six grandchildren.

“Here is the reason we Relay, right up there,” she said. “All our babies — they are so precious.”

She also loves the camaraderie.

“My favorite thing is when we get there and start setting up, and I see family and friends there. It is just a blast.”

One team member — Ricky Blair — raises more than $1,000 every year.

Last year, the group wore bellbottoms for the Relay for Life Decades theme.

Alma’s made tutus this year for the girls to wear; Frank is wearing a funny hat.

Frank said his wife has changed since facing cancer, most notably that she doesn’t sweat day-to-day problems anymore.

Alma sees herself in a better light as well.

“I always tell people I’m a better person after having breast cancer,” she said.

Alma said she doesn’t dwell on the possibilities of her cancer coming back, and she also did not want to feel sorry for herself.

“I do not allow my mind to go there,” Alma said. “From day one, I never said why me, because why not me. Nobody deserves it. Nobody wants it, but it is a part of life.”

The couple are obviously close. Frank speaks adoringly of his wife and how they first met on a blind date to see the University of Tennessee Volunteers defeat Georgia in basketball before going on to see “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“I knew the first time I went out with her that I was going to marry her,” he said. “She didn’t, but I knew.”

“It didn’t take me long. It was meant to be,” she added.

For Frank, there were many things that made her different.

“She was just special. She had a brain, and she’s very pretty,” he said.

Both Alma and Frank Johnson retired from the state. He was the longtime head football coach at Oliver Springs High School, and she spent many of her nursing years teaching at the Tennessee Technology Center at Harriman.

They raised two sons and a daughter, all of whom are teachers.

The couple seem just as in sync today, on a cozy little farm outside Oliver Springs with two dogs, Andy and Helen, named after the popular characters from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“Thirty eight years, it is too late to change,” Frank quipped, throwing his arm around Alma.