When I remember back to being 20, life was all about school, boyfriends and the future (not always in that order!) Nothing heavy, even though these simple scenarios may have played out dramatically at the time. There wasn’t a thought in my head about getting sick. Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, I realize how fortunate I was.
Johanna Stuehrenberg didn’t have that luxury. Last year, she started having trouble with her vision. She initially thought her glasses were to blame, but then other symptoms, like vomiting and headaches, started. After a trip to a walk-in clinic, the doctor there assured her it was probably just stress and definitely not a brain tumour. What consolation, she remembers. But that diagnosis couldn’t have been more off the mark.
Johanna’s symptoms persisted, and worsened, so she went back to the doctor. A CT scan finally revealed there was a major problem: liquid pressuring her brain that would require immediate surgery. Sunnybrook surgeons successfully removed a 4-centimeter cancerous tumour from Johanna’s brain, and she was then treated with radiation. What a physical and emotional journey to endure in just a few short weeks.
Now, more than a year after her ordeal, Johanna is doing extremely well. We met outside the Odette Cancer Centre for her interview, and what I saw was a beautiful and funny young woman having to, at a very young age, re-plan her life. Part of that rebuilding, she says, is sharing her story to help other younger cancer survivors. “I think when you hear about cancer, you think of older people, forties or up,” she told me. “But there are so many that are young and don’t have the great support.”
Fortunately, Johanna found support in the community and has an extremely strong family unit. Her parents even bought her a cat after her ordeal. (He is the same gray colour represented on the Brain Cancer Awareness Ribbon campaign, but that was total serendipity.) Sunnybrook’s Patient and Family Support team is also helping Johanna rehabilitate, and reintegrate, into everyday living.
“Cancer is not a chance to give up on life,” Johanna says. Hopefully, now is the time she can start thinking about school, boyfriends and the future again, in whatever order she wants.
For more information on Sunnybrook’s family support group, click here.