Images by Jeff Sampson Photography.  

Annie Johnson isn’t supposed to be alive.

What started off as a cough in early summer of 2005 turned out to be much more than what the young woman had bargained for. Johnson was only 23 and had been working overnights at Achieve. The only worry she had at the time was getting enough sleep after shifts and getting accepted for the spring semester at the University of South Dakota.

When the coughing didn’t go away, Johnson assumed it was from smoking. She had been having 5-6 cigarettes a day and had started the habit as an activity to do with her boyfriend of the time. Friends told her to brush it off because she had only been a smoker for a few years.

“I quit anyways,” Johnson said.

October came around, and not only was she still coughing, but she began to have chest pains.

“That’s when my mom, who is a nurse, was like, ‘You need to go get this checked out,’” Johnson recalled.

The mother and daughter went straight to their family doctor to get an x-ray. What the doctor saw was eerie.

“He brings the x-ray out and sticks it up on the board where we’re looking through the light [display] and he says, ‘Umm, there’s this big, cloudy area in the middle of your chest,’” she said.

Though he said there was a possibility it could be fluid, he didn’t seem very confident in the theory. The Johnsons immediately made an appointment at Avera McKennan for a CT scan the next day. Since it was all happening so fast, they didn’t have time to have someone take the x-rays over to the hospital for the radiologist, so Johnson got to take them home for the night.

“We slapped them against the sliding-glass door and were looking at it saying, ‘I don’t think that looks good,” she said.

The following morning she had the scan, and by 5:30 that afternoon she received the results that would change her life forever.

“I got the report back that I had a 15 x 9 centimeter tumor in my chest cavity,” she recalled. “My doctor said it was basically the size of a soccer ball.”

The tumor was essentially taking over her entire chest. Johnson described, “It was wrapped around everything; it was pushing down on my lungs, squeezing on my breathing tube…”

Johnson then met with Dr. Kelly McCaul at Avera McKennan’s Hematology & Bone Marrow Transplant. They swooped right in to get a biopsy, which they had to do a thoracotomy (the entering of the chest cavity) through a six-inch incision on the right side of her back.

“They knew with almost certainty with the scan that it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” she said.

The biopsy made it official. 

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