Survivor Since: 2001
Diagnosis: Metastatic Ovarian Carcinoma
Missouri Cancer Care Team:
Chemotherapy Care Team:
- Amy Boyle, RN
- Danielle Kleithermes, RN
- Denise Huff, RN
- Erin Swift, RN
- Johanna Joes, RN
- Mung Chin, RN
Treatment: Chemotherapy Treatment
Ask Gale Johnson about her cancer journey, and she’ll have to ask you which one you want to hear about first. She’s battled cancer twice, and although she says the doctors won’t tell you if they think you will live or die, she’s pretty sure the latter was looking more likely than the former for her.
Gale’s story gives proof to the pay-off of a never-give-up philosophy. She has fought her way past two diagnoses, divorce, losing her house — the side effects of cancer aren’t all bodily. She has come out on the other side showing how there’s nothing like facing death twice to help you live life — to live each day — intentionally.
“You have to look at the positive side of life, but you can’t push the negative down,” Gale says. “You have to address it and then focus on self-care.”
In 2001, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“The plan was a hysterectomy and chemotherapy. Then everything would be fine,” she says.
And for 12 years, it was fine, but then came her second diagnosis — metastatic ovarian carcinoma.
“Everywhere,” Gales says, commenting on how the cancer had spread. “It snuck in. It was so quiet.”
She remembers telling her physician at Missouri Cancer Associates, Dr. Joe Muscato — “I’m devastated.”
“So am I,” he answered, sharing her pain.
Fear set in. She’d already done this once. She didn’t want to do it again — losing her hair, the fatigue, the sickness. She sat alone in her house, crying, on a cold day in January when a friend called to see how she was doing. Thirty minutes later, the same friend knocked on the door to shake her out of her funk. She brought wine, chocolate and a most importantly, a change in perspective.
As she sat with her friend, she remembers thinking, “This is how it goes. We can do it.”
“You have to mourn the loss of everything that cancer takes away,” Gale says. And then you have to get back up and keep going.
Together with Dr. Joe and the rest of her MCA team, Gale went on the attack with open eyes, an open heart and determination. She took a proactive stance in her own healthcare, and she advises others facing cancer to do the same.
“You have to be compliant with the doctor, but they are only part of the picture. Be a partner,” she says. “I took responsibility for my actions — sleeping, eating, yoga — I still do that every day.”
It wasn’t easy. Her devotion to self-care included a lot of education as she sought to learn more about the disease she faced and the things she could do to support her health. The knowledge, at times, was overwhelming. She remembers arriving for an appointment at MCA at a low point, crying. When Dr. Joe asked what was wrong, she answered, “I did research. I know too much.”
But the research helped her understand how what she ate impacted her body. She turned to a raw foods diet to support her liver and lung function, eating a lot of onions, carrots, celery, avocados and salads. Dr. Joe worked with her, asking about the supplements she was taking that work with chemotherapy and what she was eating.
She says MCA was a wonderful support system, describing the tight relationships she formed as “falling in love with each other.”
“You can see the way that patients mesh, how they latch on to one of the staff,” Gale says. “Erin — She was my little gal in the chemo room.”
Gale decided her weekly chemo treatments at MCA would be different for her second time around. For her treatment in 2001, she took Benadryl to counteract the chemo effects, and the allergy drug often put her to sleep. This time, she asked for Claritin so she’d stay awake.
“The MCA chemo room is a community,” she says. “It’s a club — everyone trying to help everyone else. I wanted to be there to laugh and interact and talk with the new ones who weren’t doing so well.”
She often took books and jewelry making supplies to her chemo sessions, but she rarely picked up either.
“We are doing this thing together,” says Gale about the attitude and camaraderie of cancer fighters in the chemo room. “You don’t feel like you are sad there.”
Gale drew support from MCA and from family and friends, especially her best friends Beth, Amy, Deb and Nisan.
“Take a friend with you to your appointments,” Gale recommends. “Bring an advocate, particularly at the beginning. You will forget everything once you hear the ‘C’ word.”
She knew her journey the second time around wasn’t going to be easy. She faced her boyfriend Dave and said, “If you need a pass, if it’s too hard to be my guy, it’s okay.”
“What are you talking about?” he answered and stuck beside her every day.
As she became sicker and more fatigued through the course of her treatment, she needed more help, and she learned the importance of keeping dialogue open with those around her.
“Caregivers need things too. They need us to be communicative,” she says. “Tell them exactly what you need, like — ‘Can somebody make me a chicken pasta tonight?’”
Gale asked for help when she needed it and also learned to measure the small accomplishments in her life. A bullet journal helped her stay organized: she created a grid for each coming week for her “to do” tasks and schedule.
“It’s really good for keeping track of appointments and other things — when you are really sick, you need to measure progress by small things,” she says. “You can look back and see this was a good day. You see your habits.”
She also began writing morning pages, following the practice advocated by author Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. As the disease and treatment disabled her, an 8-hour day of work or activity was not possible, but Gale says she still approached each day as if she had a job.
“I sat at my desk. I made jewelry — simple earrings. I did something,” she says.
Each day, the morning pages helped center her mindset upon positivity. It’s okay to start with negativity, she says, because you have to get that out and then move on.
“Thoughts are things — tangible things,” Gale says. “You wouldn’t choose to shoot an arrow in your heart, so why would you talk to yourself that way?”
Today, Gale has made it through to remission after her second cancer bout. She visits MCA every three months to monitor her health, and she stays busy volunteering with the Missouri River Relief project, working full-time, and making jewelry she sells at Artlandish Gallery downtown. She enjoys spending time with her daughter Jade, her son-in-law Aaron and 5- and 6-year old grandsons, Tucker and Christopher.
Her journey brought lessons in simplifying her life — and appreciating what she has. During her treatment, she says she went through her closets and cleaned out her junk drawers. “I didn’t want anyone else to have to go through them if I died,” she says.
For each possession that she held in her hands, she asked herself, “Does it bring me joy?”
Today, she approaches each day of her life with the same perspective.
“Take the time to make time matter,” she says.