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Johnie Beth Matthews has led a full life – full of ups and downs, hope and despair, illness and recovery. When she was 35, Johnie suffered a cardiac arrest during a surgical procedure, only to be revived again. Then, diagnosed with small cell lung cancer at the age of 44 – the same age as her step-dad had been diagnosed with mesothelioma – Johnie made the astonishing decision not to treat it, only to recover fully and live for another several decades.
Through it all, she has managed to keep moving forward, on to the next thing, keeping the memories of those who have been a part of her life along the way, without letting those memories tie her down to the past. “Life is getting more and more exciting the older I get,” Matthews, who is in her mid-70s, recently told the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. “May I stay forever young!”
Facing Death from a Young Age
Johnie was very young when her mother married her step-dad, L.D., at the beginning of World War II. “L.D. went to work in the shipyards in the port of Houston, working with asbestos,” Johnie recalls of her step-father’s wartime service. “He would come home after his shift with fragments of asbestos still clinging to his clothes and pick me up and hug me.”
At the end of the war, L.D. was sent to the islands of the Pacific Ocean to help clean up from the battles that had taken place there. When Johnie was 7, her younger brother Jeff was born, while L.D. was serving overseas. When her step-dad came back, however, things would change.
During the recent global war, asbestos was used to insulate naval ships, and it continued to be a silent killer for many years, taking the lives of veterans and others long after the atrocities had ceased. “L.D. died at the age of 48 with a cancer of his lung lining,” Johnie explains, “caused by the asbestos he worked with.” Unfortunately, L.D. was just one of many who would go on to develop mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer that affects the pleura – a thin lining of tissue that surrounds lungs.
In 1981, when Johnie was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer – sometimes referred to as “oat cell” cancer – at the same exact age as her step-father had received his cancer diagnosis, she wondered if her own secondhand exposure to asbestos could be the cause. “Was I also collateral damage from the wartime years of World War II?” she asks. “We are not blood related, but it was odd that I came down with same kind of lung cancer that killed my step-father, and at the same age that my step-father was when diagnosed.”
Johnie is not alone: Ill effects from secondhand exposure to asbestos is far more common than previously believed. In recent decades, a new profile has emerged of young women developing mesothelioma due to exposure at a young age, usually from a male family member who worked in an industrial job. Known as “Daughters of the Dust,” those women who have managed to survive have become vociferous advocates for other mesothelioma victims and have spoken out publicly about the ongoing dangers of asbestos exposure.
Dealing with Diagnosis
In the late 1970s, after having moved on from an earlier marriage, Johnie found herself married to a cowboy named J.D. and about to gallop into some of the happiest years of her life. “My wildest dreams were coming true. Off to the horseshoeing school for six weeks, with my two dogs, and cat in my little Ford Courier pickup truck!” Johnie relates of her newest adventure with her new groom. “He didn’t even own a truck. He was going to be a farrier, and I was his bride.”
The couple bought 200 acres about twenty miles outside of Enid, Oklahoma, a small town closer to the Kansas border than it is to Oklahoma City. They owned their own herd of horses, and Johnie was in her bliss. “I was a ranch wife. Living out my dream, I’m a country girl again,” she says. “I married a cowboy, and we had our own ranch named Silver Heels Ranch.”
That all changed suddenly one night in March 1981. After discovering that she could barely walk across the room without struggling for breath, Johnie decided to drive the 20 miles into Enid to visit the emergency room. She was admitted into the hospital to be treated for pneumonia, but the doctors found something more.
“It was an atypical pneumonia, and a tumor was found in my left lung lobe,” Johnie recalls. The doctors used a bronchoscope to investigate her lungs, and lab smears were taken to be read by a radiologist. The diagnosis was small cell carcinoma in the lungs.
Unable to believe the diagnosis, J.D. refused to go see Johnie at the hospital. She was there for a week, alone and in pain. However, when Johnie’s friend Eunice, who was an ICU nurse, encouraged her to seek out a second opinion from a lung specialist she knew in Oklahoma City, husband and wife spent a day of driving back and forth between Enid and the capital city to face the news together.
However, the news didn’t come right away. Dr. Johnson, the specialist Johnie and J.D. had seen in Oklahoma City, sent the test results to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas for additional consultation. “They wanted me to make an appointment for surgery, as they wanted to remove my lung lobe and explore!” Johnie remembers the fear and uncertainty that plagued her at the time. “At first I played along and made my appointment for March 22, but something was nagging me.”
Dr. Johnson attempted to persuade her to undergo exploratory surgery and a partial pneumonectomy, but Johnie held her ground. She refused Dr. Johnson’s pleas time and again. “I cancelled with or without anyone’s blessings. The horse is already out of the barn; if I’m going to die, I’ll die my way.”
Moving Forward and Finding Healing
But Johnie has not died. She continues to move on, from day to day, experiencing life in all of its raw and often difficult circumstance. She and J.D. moved to Dallas, where they eventually split up. Johnie stayed in Dallas until 1992, when she moved again to take care of her mother, who died of diabetes nine months later. A few weeks later, her younger brother Jeff took his own life.
“It broke my heart,” Johnie says of that time in her life. “I can still hear myself screaming NO, NO, NOOOO! Each NO echoing one after another until my vocal cords were bruised. My heart was broken again and again.”
Johnie’s heart was broken physically as well. At the age of 70, she underwent two endarterectomies and had a stent implanted in the main artery of her heart. Her family on both sides had a history of heart issues, and she had been told she had a 90% blockage on one side and an 80% blockage on the other. “I was a sitting duck for a stroke or a heart attack like on a time bomb,” Johnie told MCA. “The sooner it is treated the better.”
And then another miracle happened. Dr. Daniels, her cardiologist, told Johnie, “Your heart is healed.”
Now, at the age of 76, Johnie is enjoying her pronouncement of a healed heart. “I am in my mid-seventies and being pronounced healed the second time in my life. The first time was overcoming lung cancer without treatment or surgery, and now a ‘broken heart’ that is healed! My health is my wealth. I feel twenty years younger than my chronological age.”
Johnie attributes her healing to God and the miraculous ability of the body to heal itself. “I know we all must die, but when is up to us and God,” she states. “I was told that I had made my mind up to die and changed my mind to live. God had other plans for me.”
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