By LaShaune Livingston-Johnson
My name is LaShaune Livingston-Johnson and I am a 35-year-old, two-time cancer survivor.
When I was in middle school, my English teacher had us memorize a poem by Robert Frost. The last stanza reads: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep./But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep.”
In my journey as a young cancer survivor, these lines have continued to resonate with me. And if you are a young cancer survivor as well, I hope that after you read my story, you too will have hope in the darkest of times.
My breast cancer story begins not long after learning the poem—in high school. I was diagnosed during my senior year with Stage 2 Hodgkins lymphoma.
At the time, I thought only old people got cancer. How did this happen to me so young? Wasn’t this the time in my life when I was supposed to be picking out colleges and finding a prom date? Instead, I was making decisions about cancer treatments and surgeries. As part of the standard treatment for Hodgkins, I underwent full mantle radiation, radiating an area that included my breasts. However unfair it seemed and with relatively few complications, I was able to complete my treatments, finish high school and attend college within a few years of my diagnosis.
With the cancer treatment behind me, I went ahead with life—I finished college and started a graduate degree program. More importantly, I had started to get into a regular pattern with life, started making friends and dating. Things seemed pretty normal on the surface. But, cancer was never far away from my mind, so I devoted my studies to learning about and helping cancer
survivors. While doing a dissertation about breast cancer survivors, I was diagnosed with an estrogen-receptive early stage breast cancer (ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS) in my left breast.
At the time of diagnosis, I was 30 years old. For the second time in my life, I stayed up at night wondering how and why this could happen to someone so young, and thinking about the unfairness of it all. While the breast cancer was likely linked to my earlier radiation, knowing the “how” didn’t help me sleep any better those first few nights after the diagnosis.
However, since I was already doing research about cancer survivor organizations, I was able to connect with other survivors and to share my story with other young women. While these interactions helped me feel as if I wasn’t entirely alone, I realized that there was work still to do to educate physicians and community members about the needs of young breast cancer patients.
It is at that point that I began to devote myself to reaching out to other young women, encouraging them to educate themselves about early detection and about being advocates for themselves in health care settings. It’s hard work, and there are definitely days when I feel down, but I push through with the help of my support system. And that support system is the most important part of my story—I have been incredibly blessed to have a network of friends and family who have helped me through my cancer treatments, and through life, more generally.
Most remarkably, many of these people who have helped me have also been impacted by the cancer diagnosis of a family member. Above all things, I am immeasurably thankful to my brother, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins who have selflessly supported me, even in the face of their own cancer losses.
And that finally brings me back to Mr. Frost and his woods. Yes, it has been at times hard to be a young cancer survivor. I don’t know what the future holds. I sometimes struggle to get my treatment team to understand my unique needs. I sometimes feel isolated and as if I’ll never be “normal” again. But, every day I push ahead, hoping to make a small difference in the lives of young women like myself. And when the forest gets at its darkest, and I want to give up hope, I reach out to my supporters and they bring me back to the light and back to the promises I’ve made to other women and their families.
My cancer journey has miles to go.