Story of Faith | Dr. Nathalie Johnson
When my sister, Stacey, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was told to see Dr. Nathalie Johnson because she's the best surgical oncologist in Portland. She proved to be that. With time, we learned that not only was she a skilled, talented surgeon, but also a compassionate, loving, understanding, and faith-filled supporter. We were so touched each time Dr. Johnson took the time before surgery to pray with Stacey and sing “Amazing Grace” to her. What makes Dr. Johnson's story all the more remarkable is that she is a breast cancer survivor herself. We thank her for sharing her Story of Faith with us.
Q: Can you tell me about yourself?
I was born in Washington, D.C. at Freedmen's Hospital, which is now Howard University. When I was born in 1959, it was actually the only place you could be born if you were black. My mother was from North Carolina and my father was from the Virgin Islands. When it got time for us to go to school, he wanted us to grow up in the Virgin Islands and not experience some of the things that you do with segregation and the things that were going on.
I had the best childhood ever. I had amazing parents—both my mom and my dad—and I was surrounded by cousins and family. Plus, who wouldn't love the beach and sunshine? It was just a great place to grow up and a great community. When I was ready to go to college, I came back up and I went to Howard University.
I wanted to be a doctor, but when you're a teenager and you look at how long it takes, you think, “Over 8 years and then more training? I'll be dead!” So I went into Radiation Therapy Technology, but I took pre-med requisites. I worked for a few years in that and then I decided I did want to go back to medical school. This is where that “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto your own understanding” idea came to play. As I applied to medical school I felt like that's what I should do and where I should be, but I didn't get in. It took me three years and three rounds of applications.
I actually went on an interview at the University of Maryland, and this man told me, “Some people just aren't meant to be doctors.” I left there and I said, “I don't know what he's talking about. I have the ability, I work with doctors—I'm just as capable as any physician that I've worked with. So I'm just going to keep going.” I applied to the Medical College of Virginia, and got an interview that third round. The Dean of Admissions at the School of Medicine said, “I don't know why, but I just feel like I should take you. But not this class—if you promise me you'll apply next year I'll sign you up for next year's class.” I said “Fine, I'll do it.”
I feel like that was the door that God opened for me and it was the only door that opened for me. It was the right time and I do feel that because it was more difficult, I was really focused when I got there. A lot of my classmates would miss classes, but I sat up front and I did not miss a single class. I felt like God gave me that opportunity and I didn't want to not take care of someone well because I had missed something that I should have been paying attention to.
I did finish at the top of my class, and then I took boards and had one of the highest scores in the country. It was so hard for me to get there, but it wasn't because I couldn't do it. People look at your external and make judgments about what your capabilities are, but God is greater than all of that.
Q: How did you decide to specialize in breast cancer?
I moved to LA and went into surgery, and that became my passion there. I don't know that I necessarily decided that I wanted to focus on breast cancer at the time, but when I was twelve my mother had breast cancer. I remember everybody coming over and crying, but my mom had this great faith and she just said, "God is in control and knows whatever we need—whether I'm here or I'm not here. If I'm not here, God will take care of you and He will provide. And He knows that if I need to be here, I will be!"
My mom didn't die of breast cancer. She did die of a rare form of uterine cancer after I finished medical school. Even then, I learned so much from her about walking in faith, death, the meaning of life, and relationships. I just learned so much from her.
Q: What is your spiritual background?
In the Virgin Islands, the most common church is the Moravian Church. It's from Germany, and back in the 1700s they came over to teach the slaves to read in the Caribbean. They were kind of abolitionists for the Caribbean. There are a lot of Moravian Churches in the Virgin Islands, and that's the church I grew up in. It's very formal, but now I go to the Baptist Church.
I've always had a faith. I remember being a young child—probably 4—and saying a prayer that God answered for me in that moment. So I just knew and felt Him and have always felt that He was with me. Over my lifetime just so many times I've known that God is with me.
And even recently when I went through my own cancer journey, I felt like, “God, really? Why do I have to walk through this?” But it's been a blessing. I always thought I was an empathetic physician—I always cared about patients—but when you've made a journey yourself it makes a big difference.
Q: How has your own battle with cancer affected the way you treat your patients?
Just a couple weeks ago now, I saw a lady who has a very advanced form of breast cancer that's aggressive. She refused to do chemo, which is what she needs, and she said, “Everyone that I've known that had chemo didn't do well and they just died. I can't see putting myself through that. I just can't.” She said she was praying about it and she felt led to come here.
So she had seen a couple of people and they had already told me that she was adamant about it—she gets angry if you bring up chemotherapy. Right before I went in to see her, I prayed about it and said, “Lord, this is something she needs. I'm just asking you to give me the right words to help me to reach her. Would you be with me as we have this consultation?” I went in to talk to her, and I said, “I know you're adamant and you don't want chemotherapy and I'm not going to force you to have anything. We'll agree on a plan. I will love you. Do you know about agape? It's an unconditional love. I will love you regardless of whether you do what I think is the best treatment or we take a different route; I will love you and walk with you whichever way you go. I just want you to hear me out about what the different options are and to understand what they are.”
Right away she just relaxed, so I went through it. I said, “I'm just going to share with you that I have actually had this same kind of breast cancer that you have. I did the same chemo so I really understand what I'm telling you.” She said, “What? You did chemo?” And I said, “Yes.” She said, “And you look like that?” And I said, “Yeah!” So she just started crying and I started crying and we hugged. She said, “I just feel like God brought me here and I'm just going to walk in faith that that is what I'm supposed to do.” I put in her port and she started chemo this week.
I felt like when I went through my cancer I didn't understand why I had to walk through it. But that's not the first time this has happened—when someone was adamant about it and the reason I could reach them is because I had done it myself. I realize, looking back, the Lord allowed me to have that testimony because he knew the plans and the people I would meet and how my walking that journey would have an impact on how I could help them. It just seems like it comes full circle.
Q: Can you tell me more about your diagnosis?
It's been almost five years since I was diagnosed. I was 54; my mom was 39. When I saw the mammogram I knew I had breast cancer, but I was really hoping to get one of the nice ones where I didn't have to get chemo and actually nobody would have to know that I was going through it. I was at first very closed about it and not necessarily wanting to share. But when I saw that I was going to have to have chemo, I thought, “Ok, there's no way I won't be able to share this. You can't go through chemo and have nobody know.” So I just shaved my hair off and said, “I'm just gonna roll with it.”
I don't know if you've ever read Jesus Calling by Sarah Young—it's a devotional series. I'll never forget, it was June 19 when I realized I was going to have to do chemotherapy and the devotion for that day says, “Give up your striving to keep everything under control…Let me prepare you for the day that awaits you and point you in the right direction. I am with you continually, so don't be intimidated by fear.”
It was exactly the message that I needed, because that's what I was trying to do: control my life. That was one of the things that was brought home to me: God is in control. Truly, while we walk by faith and not by sight, we just have to remember that and trust in each journey.
When I talked to my family about my diagnosis, I did what my mother did with me: I said, "You know God is in control," believing I'll do what I need to do and I'll be okay. We just have to walk that out, so that's what we've done.
Do I ever get scared? Of course I do. I get a headache and I think, “Oh no I have brain metastases!” But if it is, then I have another journey. I have to walk in faith. The scripture Philippians 4:6 says, “Be anxious for nothing but in all things give prayer and thanksgiving” and is one that I have to say to myself—not just with cancer but with a lot of things that happen that you walk through.
Q: When did you start singing to your patients?
The first time I sang to a patient was when a cancer patient woke up in the recovery room and just started bawling inconsolably. The nurses called me and asked for help. I went in and I was trying to console her myself, but she was just bawling and bawling. I hugged her and I held her and then I just started singing to her, and she calmed right down.
After that, if people seemed really, really scared and anxious, I would sing to them as they were going off to sleep. Then I had people start saying, “I heard you sang to so-and-so but you didn't sing to me!” So I thought, "Everybody deserves a song!" Now I try to be in the room [before surgery], and most of the anesthesiologists know to not put my patient to sleep until I can be with them in that moment. Sometimes they get drugs and won't remember it, but I still sing to them anyway.
“Amazing Grace” is one of my favorites to sing, and I do “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” There are moments actually where a song will come to me that I haven't sung in a long time, and I will sing it and it turns out to be very special to that person.
Q: What role does prayer play in your life?
I pray all the time for all sorts of things, especially my family. My husband takes my daughter to school every day and they pray before she goes in, and then sometimes we will do a family prayer depending on things that are going on.
I pray for my patients all the time: I pray to have wisdom and discernment, because a lot of times the decisions we're making are nuanced and there's not necessarily a right or wrong answer. I pray before a surgery many times, just asking that it goes well and smoothly, and that the person recovers well.
I pray for people that don't know the Lord because sometimes I feel like people would have a lot more peace and joy in their life if they did. I try to always let my light shine because people see the way I live and what I do, opposed to what I say.
Q: How do you keep your faith strong?
I go to church all the time, I read my devotional, and I love to sing. The harder life gets, the closer I get to God because that's when I really know He's there. I wish I read my Bible more sometimes, but we all feel like that!
Q: What advice would you give to women to grow their faith?
I think getting up each day and first thanking God for that day and doing a moment of devotion—even if it’s just two minutes. But that helps you to focus on and remember that God is in control of every day no matter how busy or how hectic and crazy it’s going to be. Then always remember during the day, when people cut you off in traffic and when you start to dribble off the court, to just take that moment to talk to God and He will bring you back. It helps to have a couple go-to scriptures that will help you focus back to God.
Q: Have you always been this positive?
I try to be. That’s my blessing: if I can share God’s love in this world, then that’s what I’m called to do.
Dr. Nathalie Johnson
Nathalie McDowell Johnson, M.D., FACS, is Medical Director of Legacy Cancer Institute, Legacy Breast Health Centers and a board-certified surgical oncologist with Legacy Medical Group in Portland, Oregon. Prior to returning to Portland and Legacy Good Samaritan in 1996, she was Commissioner of Health for the Territory of the United States Virgin Islands. Besides her clinical practice, Dr. Johnson plays an active role in research projects related to breast cancer. She is married with two children: her son, Akhi, and his wife, Ife, live in Washington, D.C., and her daughter, Noelani, is 17 years old and in high school.