Katie Johnson, Teenage Caregiver

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Posted by Nancy Lee on October 20, 2020

To celebrate her 26th birthday, Katie Lynn Johnson posted a video of herself and her husband James singing “Goodness of God” to acoustic guitar with the idyllic backdrop of the colorful Adirondack Mountains in the fall.

Katie is an actor and singer/songwriter. She has appeared in small roles on film and television and sings with her husband in “In the Valley,” a pop-folk duo. Currently, she works as a worship leader at Grace Fellowship in Clifton Park, and freelances her original drawings and paintings.

Katie has been blessed with more than her fair share of talent, beauty, and drive, but she also possesses a hidden sorrow that has shaped her into a young woman of compassion and grace. Her sorrow stems from her teenage years when she cared for and ultimately lost her mother, Joyce Kreidler, to metastasized breast cancer.

I first met Katie her senior year of college when she charmed the audience in her debut performance as Christine in the Phantom of the Opera at Houghton College, where my daughter also attended. After they graduated, the girls became roommates, and then they married brothers, which makes Katie my daughter’s sister-in-law, and I consider her to be a special part of my family.

Katie has happy memories of her childhood, growing up as the youngest of three children in Binghamton, NY. Her parents were well-known in the community; her father was a mail carrier, and her mother worked many jobs before becoming a nurse’s aide. Katie’s life was surrounded by family and filled with school, church, and community activities.

Katie became heavily involved in music at a young age. At the age of 7, she was cast as one of the children in the musical Annie in a local community theatre production. Besides involvement in school and community choirs and musicals, Katie learned to play the guitar in 6th grade, and soon after, she and her sister began leading worship music at their church.

There were two things in Katie’s childhood that set her apart from her peers. The first is that she was raised in a bi-cultural household. Her mother, Joyce, was born in the Philippines. Joyce traveled from the Philippines to Bermuda to find work, where she met a tall, handsome, American sailor named Kevin. After six months of dating, Kevin didn’t want to leave her without proposing. They had a civil ceremony in Bermuda, followed by a large wedding in the Philippines. The two settled down in Upstate New York where Kevin had grown up.

Katie has wonderful memories growing up celebrating holidays and special occasions in both the Filipino and American cultures. She especially remembers getting together with her mother and siblings to make traditional Filipino “lumpia” which are meat and veggie egg-rolls, a family favorite.

The second thing that set Katie apart from her peers is that she grew up knowing that her mother was a cancer survivor. Every year, Katie’s family would participate in a Breast Cancer Awareness Walk in their community, which often fell on her birthday weekend. They would march in a pink parade and celebrate that her mother was a survivor. When Katie was little, this was just another fun event. As she got older, she understood what it meant, and Katie’s friends would all join the march to show support for her mother.

Katie was only a toddler when her mother was first diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at the young age of 31. Katie was too young to remember most of what was going on, but she grew up hearing the stories of how her church had rallied around her family with love, prayers, and support. Members of her church, Calvary Baptist, paid for Katie’s Lolo and Lola (“grandparents”) to come to the US from the Philippines. This was an enormous blessing to the Kreidler family, as they cared for Katie and her siblings who were 3, 6, and 9 at the time.

Since the cancer was advanced by the time she was diagnosed, doctors treated her illness aggressively. Joyce was given chemotherapy and radiation, and she was also given a blood transfusion which was part of an experimental clinical trial. Finally, after a successful mastectomy of her right breast, Joyce was declared to be in remission.

Joyce was blessed with 11 healthy years before health issues resurfaced. Joyce’s first symptom was swelling in her right arm. She started seeing a physical therapist and often brought Katie along to her appointments. Katie and her brother both learned how to wrap their mother’s arm—something they did for her almost every day. This was the beginning of Katie’s role as caregiver to her mother.

Gradually the swelling got worse, and the pain increased, until one night the pain was so severe that Katie and her sister took their mother to the ER. While their mother was out of the hospital room for tests, Katie fell asleep on the hospital bed. She remembers waking up to see an x-ray of her mother’s lungs showing a grapefruit-sized mass. Katie’s worst fear was being realized – her mother’s cancer was back.

The next few weeks were a blur to Katie as her mother was given numerous tests and biopsies. Joyce was eventually diagnosed with Stage 4 non-small cell carcinoma. The breast cancer had metastasized into the lung.

During this initial whirlwind, Katie left for a ten-day school trip to Europe. Her mother had scrimped and saved for a long time to make it possible for Katie to go. Though it was hard to leave her family, Katie didn’t want to disappoint her mother. When Katie got back ten days later, her mother was visibly thinner and had cut her hair short in anticipation of what lay ahead.

At this point, her mother’s doctor prescribed an intense regime of treatments which consisted of radiation every day and chemotherapy every week. This posed a challenge for Katie’s family since her father had to work, and her brother had just left for college. In God’s perfect timing, Katie had just turned sixteen and had gotten her permit. Katie was able to drive her mother to and from her appointments, with her mother as the licensed driver in the car. She continued driving her mom this way for a few months.

Despite the treatments, her mother continued getting weaker, and Katie began taking over more of the household chores like cooking. Fall came and Katie started her Junior year in high school. Katie took a full course load, including many AP courses. She was also the class secretary and was involved in her school’s musical, Bye Bye Birdie. Her busy schedule, coupled with taking care of her mother, led to Katie being overwhelmed. She was grateful for her loving family, and all their help as the cancer progressed.

On Christmas Eve, Katie and her family began their evening with a memorable time of taking pictures together. Then Katie, her sister, and her brother, gathered around the Christmas tree. Her mother sat nearby in a dining room chair, and her father stood behind her. Before opening their presents, her father said to them, “There is something we need to tell you while we are all here together. The doctors have told us that the cancer is now terminal.” This was difficult news for her and her siblings to hear. Katie remembers sitting silently in shock.

Her father continued, “They can’t be certain, but the doctors have given your mother 18 months to live.” With heavy hearts, they tried to enjoy their time together as best as they could.

A few weeks later, just before a final rehearsal for her school musical, Katie was called out to the office for a phone call.

“Katie, I need to pick you up right away,” her father said into the phone, but he wouldn’t tell her why. Katie knew that because she was the youngest, her father was holding back information to protect her. She was frustrated that in a time like this, she was being treated like a child.

When her father finally pulled up at the school, Katie jumped into the passenger’s seat. “What is going on?” she asked.

“Your mother has a tumor in her brain, and she needs to have emergency brain surgery,” her father said as they drove together to the hospital.

At the hospital, Katie frantically looked for her mother, and then she caught a glimpse of her as she was whisked away on a stretcher in the dim, narrow hallway.

Katie didn’t see her mother again until after the surgery, and she wasn’t prepared for how difficult the recovery would be. When Joyce was able to speak, the nurses began asking her questions. It was painful to watch her mother struggle with basic information. When the nurses asked Joyce to name each of her children, she struggled to find the name for Katie. It was devastating to Katie that her mother couldn’t remember her name. Hour by hour, day by day, her mother slowly gained back her abilities.

When Joyce was strong enough to leave the hospital, it was determined in an emotional meeting with the family that it was time to admit her into hospice care. Joyce was brought home where a hospital bed had been set up for her. A hospice nurse came in and trained the family for end-of-life care. It was a traumatic transition for Katie.

There are many details about the last few months that are difficult for Katie to talk about. “It was shocking and unnatural for a child to have to take care of her parent in that way, but I did it gladly,” Katie said in a recent phone interview. “God gave me the strength and peace I needed to endure.”

She is so grateful to the Christian community who reached out to her family through prayers and kind deeds. One such kind deed that stands out in Katie’s memory is when a couple from her church came over and cleaned the whole house. Besides cleaning, they showed their love to Joyce by decorating the living room area and surrounding her with flowers.

Her mother didn’t make it the eighteen months that the doctor had predicted. She made it only six months after the Christmas Eve announcement.

The last word Katie’s mother said to her has given her strength and direction for her life. The last word was simply, “Jesus.”

Connect with Katie through one of her websites:

For more information about Breast Cancer Awareness Month, visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation website.