David Lauderdale

Mother, daughter bound by love and a fight against cancer

Lynn and Madeline Johnson have always had a special mother-daughter relationship. Lynn says if she had picked the ingredients in heaven, she couldn't have put together a better daughter.

This Mother's Day, something less joyful has pulled them closer together. It's cancer. Lynn is fighting it within her own body. Madeline fought it by raising more than $3,000 in the recent Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Washington, D.C.

Together, they want every mother and daughter -- and everyone with cancer in the family -- to fight it by being tested to see if it is genetic. That information can help reduce a person's risk of cancer.

The National Cancer Institute says: "BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that belong to a class of genes known as tumor suppressors. Mutation of these genes has been linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. A woman's risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer is greatly increased if she inherits a (harmful) BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation."

"The BRCA2 gene is in my family and is the reason I have cancer," Lynn Johnson said.

Once ovarian cancer was discovered in this 40-year resident of Hilton Head Island, the potential genetic link cast a pall over the mother and her 23-year-old daughter.

A Savannah doctor assured her it was genetic. Still, Lynn and her sister, Sissy Jarrell of Hilton Head, were tested for the gene mutations. Lynn was positive; Sissy, who has two daughters, was negative.

Hard decisions

Madeline Johnson, then a freshman at George Washington University in Washington, at first did not want to have the test done.

She explained to me on the phone Friday that when you know you have this mutated gene, it changes your life. "You literally become a ticking time bomb," she said, and you are forced to make painful decisions about chemotherapy, a preemptive hysterectomy or mastectomy. "These are hard decisions that nobody wants to make at my age."

Around Thanksgiving a year ago, Madeline called her mom and said she wanted to be tested. To do it, they pull a blood sample. It takes about a month to get the results.

"Around Christmas, they called us and asked if we could come over tomorrow morning," Lynn Johnson recalls. "We went in together and they said it was negative. I can't even describe what that feels like -- the thrill and the elation and just the sheer joy of it all."

'I am not a number'

When Lynn was diagnosed with stage 3c ovarian cancer almost five years ago, she caught Madeline up late at night studying cancer statistics on the Internet.

Madeline said it wasn't a pretty picture. "I was so devastated and upset," she remembers. Her mother told her to quit looking at the statistics.

"Those are numbers," Madeline was told. "I am your mother. You know what I'm capable of. I am not a number. I can fight this. Those numbers are history; this is about the future; medicine is advancing all the time."

Lynn Johnson had an emergency hysterectomy and has opted for a preemptive double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery because her chances of getting breast cancer were 90 percent, she said.

Madeline said her 39-mile fundraising walk in pink in the nation's capital, where she works for the African Wildlife Foundation and lives with roommate Hannah DeZeeuw of Hilton Head, was "so future generations don't have to deal with this."

Madeline said she battles a sense of guilt for somehow dodging the dastardly gene mutation that blindsided her mother.

She lays out her raw emotions in a personal blog, "Manygomiles." In it, she shares her mother's advice after she broke the news about her cancer:

"After moments of not saying anything, Mom broke the silence with something I swear I will never forget. 'Madeline, these things happen in life. You get 10 minutes to cry about it. Then you pull your socks up and go shopping.' "

Madeline was overcome with emotion at the finish line of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer when she saw her mother. Lynn surprised Madeline by riding a train overnight to share that moment, bald head and all.