Coming from her, this is not just nice talk.
She has been through six harrowing years of hardship that lets her speak
In August 2007, she and her husband separated and eventually divorced. She became a single working mom, raising two boys.
June 2008, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer — an advanced
stage. She began the grueling regimen of chemotherapy, but she continued
to work — sometimes 10-hour days starting at 5:30 a.m. She pushed on
through the chemo for six months, through December. But it wasn't enough
In January 2009, she had a bilateral mastectomy.
February 2009, she was laid off from her job. It was the very day that
her federally mandated 12 weeks of family medical leave had been
exhausted. Now she had no health insurance or income. She applied for
Medicaid but was turned down.
In April 2009 came the toughest
news for her to take. The chemo and the surgery had not been enough. She
needed radiation treatment.
So Martina knows what it's like to
be in the valley. She has been alone. Sick. Uninsured. Unemployed.
Broke. Yet, as she looks back and then looks forward into the unknowns
of 2013, she still tells people facing hardship, “You can turn it
around. It gets better.”
How can she do that? Talking with her, five points emerge that provide hints to her hope.
Martina Johnson was born in Germany, married a U.S. Army
soldier, moved to America in 1991 and left her family behind. Her
parents passed away decades ago, and she has one sister, who lives in
When she got sick, she did not have the family members
nearby that many people could naturally turn to. She did have a church
family in Woodruff who helped her greatly, preparing meals for the days
she had chemotherapy treatments.
However, it didn't take Martina
long to realize she needed even more help than they could provide. She
could see their dilemmas — they had jobs, hardships, families — and her
treatments stretched into a year and a half.
Then, out of the blue, Jerry stepped in as no one else could.
was the nephew of Martina's best friend. He had cared for his own
mother, who died of breast cancer, and he started caring for Martina
every day. He drove her home after her surgery. He drove her to doctor's
appointments. He cooked meals. Cleaned house. He even knew how to
change Martina's bandages. Jerry did not have a job, so he made
Martina's care his job for weeks.
“I would not have made it without him,” she says. “He was the family I did not have.”
her the amazing thing is that she had no idea Jerry even existed before
she was sick and in deep need. She never would have guessed that a
Jerry would be there for her in such a big way, as opposed to a natural
family or church family.
“God is just mysterious in those ways:
‘This is the person who is going to take care of you.' And he's not even
family,” Martina says.
Another thing about Jerry: He seemed happy
to do it. He didn't act as if he was being put upon to help her. That
meant a lot to Martina.
Martina feels her relationship with her
doctor also was unique. When Martina suddenly lost her job and health
insurance, she had no way to pay the medical bills. However, her doctor
kept seeing her anyway, week after week. “My treatment didn't stop,” she
Martina applied for Medicaid but was turned down. However,
her doctor reassured her that the Medicaid denial seemed incorrect and
that she should try again. Rather than give up, she took his advice. He
also wrote a letter to the government for her. Two months later, the
coverage decision was reversed.
She feels that doctor was a
blessing she needed. “He knew me, he knew my situation, and he basically
saw me in his office without insurance for two months.”
key relationship Martina brings up is her relationship with God. Her
attitude toward Him also reveals a lot about her attitude towards life's
“I did not get angry at Him,” she says. “I kind of
asked Him, ‘Why do you trust me so much?' Because I believe you go
through stuff for a reason. And I said, ‘Well, you must be trusting me a
lot to be putting all this on me.' But I wasn't angry at Him because I
know that in the end I got stronger, even stronger than I was.
“I had my bad days, I had my pity parties—don't get me wrong … I just got closer to God.”
“When you get diagnosed with cancer, it's like your whole
world — it is never going to be the same,” Martina says. “Everything
stops. And then I took a walk with my dog and I said, ‘Well everybody is
still doing their old stuff.' You think the whole world stopped, but
life is still going on. And it is not going to stop because of that.
Your diagnosis is what you make of it. And you have to go on.”
Martina did not see her troubles as an attack by God or neglect by God,
but a reshaping by God. She concluded He was making her into something
different than she was, the same a way a potter reshapes a work of art
on a potter's wheel — by applying pressure to the clay.
advises this attitude for people who need more hope: Don't let the
problem become the focus. Focusing there will drag you down. She advises
people to do something instead.
“What helped me was not sitting
at the house not doing anything,” she says. “I got up every day and took
a shower, got dressed. Put on my makeup.
“You know, some people
stay up until midnight and then sleep until 9 or 10 o'clock, sit around …
you can very easily get depressed. I had my routine, even though I
didn't have a job. I got up every day and got ready. Even if it was
just getting my newspaper and drinking my cup of coffee, I was up, and
that helped a lot.”
That attitude enabled her to little by little
take action. She would get on the phone or go find out where she could
get help with an electric bill. Another day, she might address the
Medicaid red tape.
“Staying at home makes you dwell on what
happened, or why,” she says. “I still have my days when I think about
why … but I don't dwell on that. I really don't have the time.”
says it is also important to find people who will share your attitude,
because a lot of people won't. In fact, they may unintentionally start
to talk you out of yours.
“I had people calling me saying, ‘They
are doing chemo first, so it must be really bad.' They were crying — I
had to cheer them up!
“You have to really watch out who you have
around you and who's praying for you,” she says. “You need people who
will lift you up, and be positive and not bring you down. And that is
not only if you are going through sickness. That is what you have got to
do in life, period.”
Her summation about her attitude: “The main
thing is keep going. Keep going to church, having my faith in God.
Surround myself with positive people.”
To keep going, as Martina says, people have to have goals.
Martina ended up with two. First, she decided she wanted to help people
who were in her situation. That has grown into a life mission. Second,
she decided she would need a college degree to accomplish that mission
in a medical setting where she would be available to cancer patients.
“I felt, why go through all this and not use it, and turn around and help somebody else?” she says.
By August 2009, she had finished her radiation treatments and had enrolled in Spartanburg Community College.
had no idea how she was going to pay for college. The only way she had
made it thus far was with the help of free food from food banks, help
from the Salvation Army, gas cards to help her get the fuel to drive to
medical appointments, free wigs and hats when she lost her hair.
she kept moving. “When I finished my radiation in May, I was already
online doing my FAFSA to see if I qualified,” she says.
thought she might get enough to pay for the fall semester and would then
have to come up with money for books. But when she got word about her
Pell grant, she discovered it was enough to pay for everything.
“I cried,” she said. “I said ‘God, I can go back to school. My books are going to be paid for, everything would be paid for.'”
was able to study as a fulltime student in the college's administrative
office-medical program. She describes that as “the great opportunity”
of her illness.
She also got an internship working at a hospital
where she could help nurses advise cancer patients about the available
services she had learned about the hard way. Last May she graduated and
landed a part-time job at Celligent Diagnostics, a lab where she helps
process pap smears and breast exam results.
“I really believe that all this is just going to help me help somebody else,” Martina says.
Do you remember the words Martina tells people? She says, “It gets better.” That's not the same as, “It gets all better.”
Her problems have not evaporated. Things are not back to normal.
Martina still is dealing with the side effects of the treatment and
will be seeing a doctor for years to come. She is cancer-free but still
has to take medicine. She can't do the things she could do before.
Financially, “My credit is basically shot,” she says. “I am financially starting all over again.”
Martina says she is now thankful for things she once did not give a
thought about. It's an important ingredient for getting out of despair
and building hope, she says.
“Be thankful that you can get up, be
with your family, walk from your bedroom to the kitchen, and sit
outside,” she says. “Be thankful for what you can do because going back
and dwelling on, ‘Oh, I used to be able to' … is not going to help.”
example of her words in action is her car. Her Chrysler Sebring is 12
years old. Martina knows it won't last forever—a problem is on the way.
But on the front bumper she has a license plate that says “Blessed.” It
was there before her troubles started, and it's there now.
When she looks at her car, this is her comment: “It still looks great.”
Looking where she was in 2008, Martina says her priorities were wrong.
misguided priority was what she calls her German work ethic. She had
never lost a job in her life. She took great pride in always going the
extra mile, and she was used to being commended for her work.
Though a good work ethic is a virtue, she realizes now she had overcommitted to a job that was gone in an instant.
“I still give 100 percent,” she says. “But I know people put things off too long.”
thing she notes can get put off is one’s own spiritual health. This
year she made it a priority to attend a weekend women’s retreat in North
Carolina. It was sponsored by the church she has joined since moving
from Woodruff to Spartanburg, Evangel Cathedral. In times past, that
could have been easily bumped by an unforeseen circumstance.
know people have these things they put off, because it is not the right
time, they are busy with the kids, busy with that. And getting sick like
that really puts it into perspective. … The job, that can be replaced.
But time with your family, and your grandkids, and watching your kids
grow up … just be thankful for every day you can spend with good friends
who will lift you up. Because it gets better. It gets better.”
“It is sad if you go through all that and don’t change your priorities,
if you don’t realize, ‘Well, this was out of whack.’ … We all have our
priorities sometimes wrong. And that was just a wake-up call.”
that is not just nice talk. Martina is not completely out of the
valley. But one reason she walks through it with hope is that she lives
by such advice. For example: “I got to see the ocean this year,” she
says. “I don’t know when I will be able to do it again."
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