The phone call made him furious.
Verne Johnson’s doctor was on the other end of the line, telling him he might need a third surgery to rid him of cancer.
Johnson’s first surgery had been to remove a growth that had been found in his chest months earlier. The growth was cancerous. The second surgery was to remove Johnson’s left breast and a lymph node under his left arm.
All of this had happened within a month and a half. Now Johnson’s surgeon, who wasn’t a cancer specialist, was telling him he might need a third operation to remove more cancerous tissue.
Surgery to remove left breast
What cancer taught me
To be aware of anything happening within my body, even if it appears minor.
How cancer changed me
I’ve always been a Christian, but I think it’s caused me to be grateful to be alive. Period.
What would I tell someone who was just diagnosed
There’s always a great deal of hope because there’s advances being made every day. And to think positive.”
The cancer diagnosis and the follow-up treatment served as a lesson Johnson has never forgotten: If something on your body looks strange, if anything looks strange, get it checked by a specialist.
“Men should pay attention to little signs. Which I did not,” he said.
Johnson, a father of three who lives in Franklin with his wife, Jane, noticed the first little sign in the summer of 2002. He noticed a small air bubble, about the size of his little finger, popping out of the left side of his chest.
While it looked strange, the then-71-year-old thought it was just a sign that he was getting older, and he didn’t bother telling his wife or his family doctor what he’d found.
A few months later, Johnson, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, saw a Veterans Affairs doctor about a prescription program. During a checkup, the bubble reappeared.
The physician thought it was being caused by one of Johnson’s medications, but Johnson called his family doctor to get a second opinion. His doctor told him everything was probably fine but to call him if the bubble changed.
By late fall, Johnson noticed the bubble had gotten larger and was now the size of his thumb. He called his doctor, who sent him to have a mammogram, which Johnson thought was strange.
The mammogram showed that both of Johnson’s breasts were clear, but it found a growth about 6 inches below his left breast. He had surgery to have the growth removed, and it was sent to Orlando for testing.
Once again Johnson’s doctor’s told him he would be fine.
“Being a cock-eyed optimist, I took it that way,” he said.
In December, news about the growth came back. The growth was malignant, and doctors were worried that tissue between the air bubble and where the growth had been was cancerous. That meant another surgery.
Johnson doesn’t remember any of his doctors saying the word cancer at this point, instead they talked about infected tissue that needed to be removed. But Johnson knew what was happening.
About 2,140 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, compared with about 230,000 women, medical oncologist Pablo Bedano said. Bedano is a physician with Johnson Memorial Hospital and did not treat Johnson.
Estrogen typically fuels the cancer when it strikes men; and while no major risk factors have been identified for men, those who are older, around 65, who have battled liver disease are susceptible, Bedano said.
The surgery to remove Johnson’s left breast and lymph node came in December. The cancer was slow-growing, meaning he didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy. But two weeks later, Johnson got the infuriating phone call from his surgeon.
The surgeon had been reviewing lab results, found something that looked suspicious and wanted to operate to look further.
Instead, Johnson did what he should have done months earlier. He saw a cancer specialist.
The specialist who reviewed Johnson’s lab work told him he was fine, that no further surgery was needed. But he was prescribed tamoxifen, a prescription given to treat breast cancer, for five years.
“I consider myself a lucky guy,” he said.
Still, even with the surgeries over, Johnson didn’t like to talk much about his health. Sometimes he wondered whether the doctors had removed all of the cancerous tissue and worried it could come back.
Johnson, a Christian all his life, started spending more time in prayer once he was cancer-free. His prayers led him to start volunteering at Johnson Memorial Hospital’s outpatient surgery department six years ago. In 2010, he started volunteering at the InterChurch food pantry in Franklin.
At the hospital’s outpatient surgery department, he makes beds, pushes wheelchairs, helps nurses and greets patients.
Johnson never knows why a patient is having surgery, but he can usually identify those who are scared because they look and act as he did when he was having surgery. So while he doesn’t know their history, he knows what to say to try and make them feel better.
“I think I’m where God wants me,” he said.