Battling cancer, teen finds strength in faith


Daneene Johnson didn't write the Langston Hughes poem that reads, "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair," but she could have.

The 17-year-old, one of five students awarded $1,000 Martin Luther King college scholarships this month by the City of Annapolis, found out just weeks before her senior year began that she had a malignant brain tumor.

She wasn't supposed to graduate. She wasn't even supposed to be able to study.

"But Doctor Jesus had a different set of plans in store for me," she told the graduating class of Annapolis High School, as she marched across stage with the others a few weeks ago to receive her diploma.

The dark-eyed, soft-spoken and friendly Johnson had never been ill. Her junior year, she'd noticed a weakness in her right hand, then she started getting sick every day in math class. A doctor teased her that she just didn't like math.

The problem didn't go away, however, and last August, Daneene sat in an office at Johns Hopkins Hospital, listening to a doctor tell her about the brain tumor and watching the hurt in her parents' faces.

"They told me I wouldn't be able to go to school," she recalled last week, relaxing on the porch of her family's Eastport home. "Your senior year is supposed to be that year to remember."

It was, but not the way she'd planned. After three active years of high school, the teen-ager found herself flat on her back undergoing brain scans, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

She had been a member of the National Honor Society, historian of the Future Business Leaders of America, active in the youth fellowship of Mount Zion United Methodist Church and a member of the Unity Club, a group that helps minority students improve academically and socially.

Now, she was reduced to hospital stays and confinement at home.

But she wasn't defeated, not even when Hopkins surgeon Benjamin Carson discovered during the operation that her tumor was malignant. Instead, she welcomed tutors every day of the week to keep up with her work.

"I can say today that God answers prayers," she says. "He sent my family and friends to comfort me and as a source of strength. sent his Holy Spirit to keep my heart and soul intact.

"My family stuck with me, in so many ways -- brothers, aunt, uncle, dad, granddad," she says. "My friends called me and we went for walks. They stayed my friends."

Carson, the surgeon, who has written two books about following your dreams, inspired her not to give up, Daneene says.

"You have to believe you can get well," she says.

Daneene starts summer classes at Anne Arundel Community College in two weeks.

"I can't wait to start," she says with a big smile. "I'm so grateful to be able to go."

She plans to study child psychology, hoping to give others what has been given to her, she says.

"People have spent time with me and talked to me, taught me to set goals," she says. "I want to give some of that back."

Her most recent brain scan showed the tumor was gone. However, Daneene still goes to the hospital every Tuesday for check-ups, and once a month she's admitted for three days of chemotherapy. Even in this, however, she's been fortunate, Daneene says; she's not experienced any adverse side effects from the treatment.

Then her smile slips for a moment, and she cries, briefly.

"I was so happy to walk across that stage and graduate," she says. "It meant -- I can't say what it meant."

Though she experiences a lack of coordination on the right side of her body, Daneene is glad to be alive, functioning, talking.

"I can write well, but not as fast, that's all," she says.

She repeats lines from the poem she quoted at graduation:

"Don't you set down on the steps 'Cause you find it's kinder hard. Don't you fall now. For I'se still goin', honey, I'se still climbin', And life for me ain't been no crystal stair."

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