AYA Cancer Challenge

When Danadia Johnson kept falling asleep at school, she thought something might be wrong.

When she couldn’t stay awake in science, her favorite class, she knew it was time to see a doctor.

Following a doctor’s visit, Johnson’s symptoms grew worse. 

Swollen lymph nodes and follow-up tests revealed that the cure for her fatigue wasn’t more rest. 

Johnson had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), an aggressive disease that causes the overproduction of immature white blood cells and underproduces normal disease-fighting cells.

“At first, I didn’t worry about it,” she said. “I was like it’s OK, God will get me through this.

It’s just a little bump in the road. But my family was in the room, and I felt all their emotions and started crying.” 

I didn’t get to celebrate all of the memories with the people and friends I went to school with.

Instead, I was using a walker to get around. I turned into an old person.

The diagnosis meant Johnson would miss her entire senior year of high school.

No social activities. No senior celebrations. No prom. Just chemotherapy.

“That was the one year I wanted to experience,” she said. “I didn’t get to celebrate all of the memories with the people and friends I went to school with.

Instead, I was using a walker to get around. I turned into an old person.”

Johnson’s school work followed her home and to the hospital while her friends followed her social media progress. 

Because her condition made her highly susceptible to infections, she couldn’t physically spend much time with others, creating a social void occupied by online video games.

“I was really lonely,” Johnson said, as she described her time during treatment. “I would play video games all the time and talk to random people [online].

I would talk to my family a lot. My brother would sit and talk to me every night..”

The chemotherapy eventually made Johnson’s hair fall out. Instead of letting it get her down, she made the experience fun, often wearing different colored wigs and hairstyles.

Following a visit to her father’s house and a trip to a local restaurant with her family, she began to feel ill. Johnson was rushed to the hospital, where she blacked out and fell into a coma.

“I don’t remember anything,” Johnson said. “When I got up, I was in the [intensive care unit]. I was confused.

My muscles were weak. I had to learn how to walk again. I also lost a lot of weight. It felt like a dream the whole time.”

The setback marked a long period of physical therapy, breathing treatments, and a push to regain her independence, a stark contrast to just one year prior.

Now, Johnson couldn’t walk halfway down the hall without feeling out of breath.

Her hard work and positive attitude would eventually pay off. After approximately a month of intense therapy, Johnson was able to go home. Still limited by her lack of endurance, she arrived at her high school graduation in a wheelchair. 

When her name was called, Johnson stood up and walked across the stage to receive her diploma. It was a special moment that moved some to tears.

“I was happy I got to walk across the stage. All my friends wanted to hug me, and I had to keep saying, ‘No, I can’t hug you, I’m sorry,’’’ Johnson recalled, “One girl came up to me and started crying. It was very emotional.”

Now 19, Johnson still receives intravenous chemotherapy once a month and oral medication every day as a part of her maintenance care. 

But she can finally focus on being a student again. She is currently pursuing a psychology degree at Tarrant County College while navigating life’s challenges after cancer.

This article is a part of a series of stories that highlight the life-changing impact cancer has on local young people’s lives. 

The Fort Worth AYA Oncology Coalition exists to ensure that all cancer patients, survivors, and their families have the relevant resources, comprehensive support, and specialized care they deserve. Learn how you can help us make that a reality at our North Texas Giving Day headquarters.


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