by Chip Colandreo
This is the incredible story of two young women – one a Lake Mary High grad now working at Scholastic Corporation, the other a Lake Mary Elementary School teacher – both diagnosed with rare forms of breast cancer in their early 30s. Audrey Perrott, who LMHS classmates will remember as Audrey Frazier, started her battle first in March of 2013. Kindergarten teacher Christina Johnston joined the fight almost exactly a year later. The two quickly became sisters-in-arms, with Audrey serving as Christina’s beacon and guide, giving her firsthand reports of the challenging road directly ahead.
The two have cried together, laughed together, and cheered each other up on days when the sun never seemed to rise. But though they’d shared a unique and powerful bond, they never once embraced in a reassuring hug or witnessed the hope, fear, and empathy in the other’s eyes. Because until they recently gathered to take the photos you see on these pages, Audrey Perrott and Christina Johnston had never actually met.
Now cancer free and finally in the warmth of each other’s company, both Christina and Audrey have the chance to celebrate and reflect together. It’s the perfect opportunity for all of us to get to know them, too. Because while the tale of their meeting is impressive, they both have pretty intriguing life stories of their own:
Happy birthday. You have cancer.
Though the news was delivered with more tact, its irony bit just as hard.
“I had felt lumps in my breast before, but they all turned out to be nothing,” Audrey recalls. “This one just felt different.” One mammogram and two ultrasounds later, Audrey’s doctor scheduled her for a priority MRI.
“The only day they could get me in was my 33rd birthday,” says Audrey. “When the MRI was over, I actually felt relief. Now I can go celebrate. I wasn’t home an hour before the phone rang.”
Audrey’s doctor ordered a biopsy that very afternoon. “My chart literally had a giant exclamation point on it,” Audrey recalls. Audrey’s birthday, the MRI, and biopsy all happened on a Friday. Her phone rang again at 7:15 on Monday morning. The instructions were soul-crushing: Come to the doctor’s office now. And you should probably bring someone with you.
The news was bad but the prognosis surprisingly good. Audrey would spend the next year enduring surgeries and chemotherapy, but she would survive. There was, however, another problem.
“We were in the process of adopting a special-needs baby from China,” says Audrey. “My husband and I had to decide if we should still move forward and grow our family.”
In the midst of the debate, Audrey and her husband stumbled upon a prophetic Bible verse-of-the-day: Trust in the Lord and keep your roots by the stream. Even in the year of drought, you will bear fruit.
When Audrey returned home from her second-to-last chemotherapy treatment, a message from her adoption agency was waiting. A young girl in China with a cleft palate had been matched with Audrey’s family.
“I told the adoption agency what was happening, that I was now cancer free but still battling,” Audrey says. “They were OK with it, but I still had seven weeks of daily radiation treatments ahead. I now had her face to think about and pray for, though. Every time I climbed up on that table, I thought about what that little girl was going through. I finally finished my treatments, and we got approval to travel to China in March of 2014. We met our daughter for the first time and signed the papers to adopt her on March 18, exactly one year to the day from my official diagnosis with cancer.”
Even in the year of drought, you will bear fruit…
Back in the U.S., more surgeries followed. Not for Audrey, but for little Ting Mae Perrott, who is now a healthy, happy part of her new family.
With the cancer battle behind her, Audrey was eager to give back to an organization that had meant so much to her, The Gina McReynolds Foundation. A talented writer, Audrey volunteered to contact other women with cancer who were being helped by the foundation and collect testimonials for the organization’s website. That led to a mutually beneficial encounter…
Christina Johnston’s doctors looked at her like she was insane. “’Well, I have to keep teaching,’ I told them,” Christina says as she describes a conversation during the development of her treatment plan for stage 3 breast cancer. “Teaching is part of who I am. I can’t change who I am and what I do, so I told them we’d have to figure something out.”
Late in the school year of 2014, the doctors explained Christina was about to embark on 18 weeks of aggressive chemotherapy treatments – treatments that would leave her immune system depressed and her head completely bald – followed by radical surgery and 30 rounds of follow-up radiation. Yes, Christina was only 32, otherwise healthy, and had a good overall prognosis, but why in the world, the doctors wondered aloud, would Christina stick herself in the middle of the germ-laden Petri dish that is a kindergarten classroom? Christina’s only response was to explain that Lake Mary Elementary School was a family.
“On the day of my first treatment, May 22, right before the school year ended, I got a text message every 15 minutes with a picture of another person at Lake Mary Elementary wearing these pink ‘LME Family’ shirts,” Christina recalls. “As I sat in the chair getting that first dose of chemotherapy, I got eight hour’s worth of those pictures. The best one was our custodian. The shirt was so tight on him, but his smile was so big.”
As the first day of the new school year approached, Christina was in the throes of treatment, bald as could be, but determined to make her experience a teachable moment for her kids.
“Meet the Teacher Day was a little tricky,” Christina admits. “I typed up a letter for all my students and their parents. It said, ‘I understand you have a lot of questions. I hope this letter answers most of them.’ I wanted the students to see adversity and be comfortable and open with it. I wanted to take the fear away, to let them know it was going to be OK.”
By the end, Christina had taken a grand total of three days off for treatments and a doctor-mandated six weeks of leave after surgery. The day before her final treatment, Christina let her students bedazzle and decorate her head.
“We all got through it together,” Christina says with a smile.
At her side for nearly the entire ordeal – figuratively if not literally – was Audrey.
“She contacted me to hear my story for the Gina McReynolds Foundation website, and I’ll never forget my first conversation with her,” says Christina. “Because she was a year ahead of me, Audrey knew what I was going through and what I was about to face. She has two young kids just like I do. Her perspective and advice was incredible. I don’t think she really understands just how much she helped me.”
And Audrey’s help is now more valuable than ever. With the treatments and major surgeries over, and an official status of “cancer free” but not yet “cured,” Christina now begins a new and possibly more nerve-wracking phase of her recovery.
“The fears are there – the ‘normal’ that I used to have doesn’t exist anymore,” says Christina. “It can be a bit paralyzing. That’s why having someone like Audrey to talk to is such a gift.”
After a year of fighting, confiding, and friendship making, it’s a gift Christina is finally able to unwrap in person.