Steve Johnson is full of cancer.
But every Tuesday, he turns his thoughts and actions outward, making sure other people are full. He helps clients pick out items at the Northeast Community Ministries food pantry, helping clients pick out food and other essential items.
On this particular Tuesday, Johnson is on his knees, stocking a lower shelf with canned tomato sauce.
He spends a lot of of time on his knees, thanking God for the opportunity to serve and for the life he has, even though no one can say with certainty how long that life will last.
His cancer? It’s serious. And it’s spread. But Johnson refuses to give in to the disease. Not in body, not in mind and most certainly not in spirit.
“I have been through a lot, but I have been given so much,” said Johnson, 70.
It all began on a Saturday evening in April 2015, when his wife, Bev, noticed he wasn’t talking right.
The speech issue continued the next morning.
“We went to church and one of the members of our group is a retired surgeon,” Johnson recalled. “He talked to me for a few minutes and said I needed to see a doctor. I told him I would, the next day. He said, ‘No, I mean now.’”
Johnson and Bev rushed to the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital emergency room. Within an hour he was in the intensive care unit.
An MRI illuminated the gravity of the situation.
A stunning diagnosis
“They said it looks like your primary cancer is in your right lung,” Johnson said. “You have innumerable lesions in your brain, several of which were bleeding. You also have cancer in your liver and your bones.”
Johnson said that he had hit his head on the hatch door of his SUV that Saturday. He thought maybe the impact caused the lesions to bleed and the slurred speech.
He went from having speech difficulties to a prognosis that would have left many people speechless.
I believe we’re dying from the day we are born. …That part does not bother me. The only reason I would struggle against dying are my loving wife, our sons, daughters-in-law, our grandchildren, siblings and my 94-year-old mother—in a word, family. I have had an undeserved wonderfully blessed life.
Josip Divic, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group hospitalist, delivered the news.
“Dr. Divic came in on Monday and told me that I had stage 4 adenocarcinoma,” Johnson said. “The lesions on your brain are innumerable. This is not curable. What we have to do now is decide whether to put you in hospice or try something then put you in hospice.”
Johnson said, surprisingly, the news didn’t shake him as much as it could have.
“I am a man of faith and joy,” said the former Family Christian Stores marketing manager. “Those things did not really upset me at all. As weird as it sounds, this was a season of laughter and joy.”
Johnson and his family and friends stepped into that space where little things no longer matter. There is a freedom in that place, where perhaps the heart instinctively craves joy, and laughter.
Stripped of tomorrows, we can more easily recognize the importance of today.
Yuanbin Chen, MD, PhD, a Spectrum Health oncologist, ordered a lung biopsy.
“He confirmed Dr. Divic’s findings and set me up for my first radiation treatment,” Johnson said.
‘We know where to start’
Johnson recalls telling the doctor he considered the diagnosis confirmation as good news.
“He said, ‘No it’s not, it’s bad news,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘No, it’s good news because now we know where to start.'”
Dr. Divic later told Bev he would like to offer Steve a white coat to do rounds because of Johnson’s positive attitude. Johnson said Dr. Chen told him there was a lady in the next room with the exact same kind of cancer, but she wasn’t going to make it because she had already given up.
“I preach this over and over to people—life’s not done until it’s done,” Johnson said. “In the meantime, I’ve got living to do.”
Johnson endured eight radiation treatments at the Spectrum Health Cancer Care Center, including full brain radiation. He continues to be on Tarceva, an oral chemotherapy drug.
“Dr. Chen said most people in stage 4 cancer who have full brain radiation typically last no more than six months,” Johnson said. “He never gave me a date, or said you have six months, so we are going to keep plugging along until our Creator decides the time.”
Johnson’s attitude and active lifestyle play a part in how well he is doing.
“He is considered doing very well, although not perfect given his high disease burden,” Dr. Chen said. “His prognosis overall is not good due to extensive cancer involvement, but he has already beat the odds, typically less than six months for his situation.”
Dr. Chen said advanced technology and new drugs are bolstering Johnson’s odds.
“At Spectrum we have the capability to identify each lung cancer patient’s potential actionable mutation and offer them the most effective treatment based on the unique genetic make-up of their cancer,” Dr. Chen said.
Johnson’s particular mutation makes targeted therapy extremely effective.
“The unique biology of each individual’s lung cancer and choice of the right drug mostly determines the outcome,” he said.
Johnson feels fortunate to not have many side effects, other than fatigue, a persistent rash and memory issues.
Attending his own funeral—a celebration
“Every day begins with a 6:30 a.m. dose of Tarceva, devotions with Bev and then settling into learning new routines,” Johnson said. “By 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, I just hit a wall.”
He had to retire from his job. But that gives him more time to spend with Bev, his wife of 39 years. Now he has found opportunities to focus on growing his and Bev’s marriage, and being a contributing member of his church and community.
“We keep looking for ways we can step in and help,” he said.
That’s the way he was raised. The way he lives.
In 1968 he returned to the U.S. from Vietnam and started attending a small college in Marion, Indiana. He became involved in a church in Alexandria, Indiana, also attended by gospel singers Bill and Gloria Gaither. He later went back to school, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at age 55 and 62, respectively, and became an adjunct instructor at Cornerstone University.
After his diagnosis, his Family Christian co-workers decided to throw a “funeral” for him, so he could participate in what will someday occur without his presence.
“It was a celebration, an unbelievable gift that felt like someone else’s funeral,” Johnson said.
None of us knows from one day to the next how many days we have left, even how many minutes we have left. …Moments are everything. Moments are snapshots of eternity and we need to enjoy and live to the fullest every moment that we have.
Life continues to be a celebration for Johnson.
He loves to tell the story of how, at the closing of a recent exam, Dr. Chen turned on his chair and said, ‘Steve, you’re a miracle.’
But he knows what may be looming. He’s not ducking from it.
“I believe we’re dying from the day we are born,” Johnson said. “That part does not bother me. The only reason I would struggle against dying are my loving wife, our sons, daughters-in-law, our grandchildren, siblings and my 94-year-old mother—in a word, family. I have had an undeserved wonderfully blessed life.”
He’s not the type to feel down or sorry for himself. He’d rather look up, and give thanks for all the good that God has showered down on him.
“Cancer is not a journey I would have chosen,” he said. “However, the results of walking this pathway are ever positive. Each journey is an opportunity to learn and to live fully.”
Johnson is a self-described work addict. Cancer changed that.
“One day, one hour, one moment at a time with God,” Johnson said.
He is doing well. He and Bev are doing well. He wants others to do well, too, no matter their situation, be it cancer that consumes the body or poverty that consumes the spirit.
“My spiritual gift is encouragement,” Johnson said after helping a client search for diced tomatoes on the pantry shelves. “I try to encourage the clients in a way that does not diminish their value. I just love on them.”
P.J. Hefferan, pantry coordinator, said Johnson is a tireless worker with a great attitude.
“We have to almost beg him to sit down,” Hefferan said after Johnson straightened shelves of cranberry juice concentrate and unloaded a truck of supplies. “If he’s tired, he never shows it. It’s a blessing to have him here.”
Johnson said he’s grateful to be able to continue volunteering.
“None of us knows from one day to the next how many days we have left, even how many minutes we have left,” Johnson said. “Moments are everything. Moments are snapshots of eternity and we need to enjoy and live to the fullest every moment that we have.”
Such a positive spirit that brings him through each day. I can appreciate that as my mom too has lung cancer. It too hit her from out of the blue. She is a survivor like Steve. At 90 years old she is in the fight of her life but with her positive attitude and awesome faith in GOD she too is a survivor.
I knew Steve had been diagnosed with cancer. I often think of he and Bev, friends of an earlier time. I played the organ while he was the music director. I have never met a finer person. I am so glad to read this article and to hear of his lifestyle now. My spouse died of prostate cancer June 30, 2008. The God that sustains me is the God Steve is telling us about. I love you, Steve and Bev.
Praise the Lord for the peace He is giving you. Thank you for your incredible example of how God sustains you . . . through anything this life throws at you. Hugs to you and Bev. If I don’t see you before you go home, please save me a seat at the table.
Steve has always been an inspiration and a loveable guy! Thanks be to God for letting us be part of Steve’s journey! God already has His future job planned! Love you Steve!
Steve is a wonderful example of Christ in action. He is a good friend and has been an encourager to both my girls when he taught Sunday School at our church. As a fellow cancer patient, I look at Steve and continue my journey with the same motivation. I have family and friends to keep me going but know that when God decides to call me home, I will be ready…..
Steve. I’m so sorry to hear about your health! I so enjoyed working with you at Family Christian Stores. You Allways went out of you way to help me in the moline store and the waterloo store. 86 and 281. May The Lord give you great times with your family still!! Your Brother in Jesus!!
I admire Uncle Steve in all that he does and his whole family is willing to go the extra mile to help someone out and make sure they are well taken care of….I keep him in my prayers everyday and family too hugs….what blessing he is love all so much….
I worked with Steve and throughly enjoyed the energy and spirit he surrounded himself with. He was selfless and hilarious. I’m sorry to hear he has cancer, but I’m happy he has not given up. Thank you Steve for letting me be a part of your life.
You are an inspiration, Steve. Thanks for showing us all the meaning of “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Your story of celebrating life is so inspiring. Thanks for sharing it. May God continue to bless you with strength and many beautiful moments.
steve, i too am a nam vet. i have had several bouts with cancer and other problems due to agent orange exposure. my attitude is this: my medical problems AREN`T going to dictate to me. they may limit what i can do, they may eventually take me down but they will NEVER win because i won`t let them. my Lord has brought me this far, walked beside me and sometimes carried me, and blessed me richly. my prayer to Him is that in whatever time He is allowing me before the end that He help me to change the world if only in a small way and in a small corner. with His help, i WILL be victorious.
An awesome story. I have a friend has survived throat & stomach with 12 surgeries. Hans Reufertt, a chef & owner Woodbrude Inn in Jasper GA as competing on The Cooking Network in 2016. He known as the chef with no stomach. He is has traveled with Eli Lilly and travels sharing his story. Check out http://www.hanscooks.com/
What an example of ChristIan love. Steve has always been an inspiration to all of us who know him. And through this journey, he continues to be an inspiration to even those who don’t know him. I can’t say enough how much I’ve appreciated your concern and care for my grand daughter, as well as myself, after we lost my son. You are an amazing person who always puts other’s ahead of yourself, no matter what you are going through. Your
prayers have truly blessed my family and we will always love you.
Steve, you are an inspiration to me and your life is an example of the verse “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” I recently heard one of the singers in the Blackwood Brothers quartet, who is confined to a wheelchair with ALS, say ” I’m in a win win situation. If the Lord heals me I win, But if I die I’ll be with the Lord in heaven and I win”. Steve, your living life like a winner!
So happy to read this about how Steve is doing. I don’t know Steve but his brother Greg and his wife Marta have been friends of ourd for a long time. Greg served with my husband in the Michigan National Guard. They are some of the finest people I know. Reading about Steve and seeing his photo I see Greg all over again. I’ve been praying for Steve everyday since his diagnosis and will continue to pray prayers of thanksgiving for his life and that he stays well enough to continue to be an inspiration to others for a long time. God bless these 2 Johnson brothers and their families. ??
Steve, to me, you and Bev are examples of how to walk like Jesus, and how to encourage and inspire everyone you come in contact with. I think you have a very ‘healthy’ attitude and that’s why you’re still here. Keep on keeping on, and fight the good fight; you stop those words from being a cliché! Know you are loved!
My wife Janet and I have known Steve & Bev Johnson for more years than I care to admit. Steve has always cherished the little moments in life that make the journey a joy. He loved the simple joys of a good meal (at Bill Knapps) or one of my lame jokes. Steve & Bev were meant to be together. As Christians, they not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk. May God continue to hold both of you in his big hands.
My sister told me “God didn’t stamp an expiration date on the bottom of your foot.”
God Bless you and your message, Steve.
I met Steve and Bev upon attending Berkley Hills Church. Steve quickly quized me on what I liked to do, what was important to me, and what dreams did I have for my future. Among other things, I told Steve that I was considering returning to college to obtain a BS in Ministry Leadership. Steve enthusiastically told me of his mid-life educational journey that resulted in him teaching courses as Grand Valley and Cornerstone! Over a breakfast Steve answered my questions and more importantly erased my fears of failing. Steve’s indominable confidence in my return to school sealed my decsion. Three and 1/2 years later I completed my course requirements, and now await graduation. Steve’s life journey is nothing short of amazing! Cancer has only shined a spotlight on the love of Jesus Christ that lives through Steve. Am I suprised Steve outlives his prognosis? Not at all, because Steve has always “lived” all “out”. Brian Norton
Steve was instrumental in me wanting to know Christ in a personal way, back at youth camp. Though we haven’t seen each other much over the many years My husband and I consider him a friend. My husband was diagnosed with cancer as well and just like Seve he wasn’t about to let cancer get him down and nearly 5 years later he is still going about doing whatever he can to spread the good words about Jesus and work as hard and as long as God allow. He said it was a “win-win” situation for him….if he went to Heaven it was a win and if he got to stay with me and our famililies it was a win. He also held onto HOPE. Keep having goals to push toward….ours was our 50th anniversary which we just celebrated last week.
Steve Johnson is nothing short of a “good and faithful servant”. I had the honor of working with Steve at Family Christian Stores for 5 years. His attitude toward this ugly cancer is exactly what I would expect of him. I love you Steve and miss our chats we used to have. To you, my friend, my love and prayers are with you and your family. Well done, good and faithful servant!
I remember talking to you Steve after I had won K-Love’s trip to C.S.Lewis’ home in England in 2006, such a nice person. The next Fall of 2007, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, quick growing, so I did all the things to treat, especially prayer, and I have survived now for 9+ years! I thank God for my miracle every day and now pray for you Steve for your own miracle, one way or the other your life is and has been a beautiful example of the Christian walk, pray continue in Jesus’ precious Holy name, Amen
Steve Johnson was an amazing partner with all of us in Family Christian Stores. He had a servant’s heart and was always willing to help the stores and those in the home office. To Estelle and my delight, when we moved to Fremont over 3 years ago, we have had the privilege to meet most of his family. His brother Bob and his wife Bernie are our next door neighbors. We go to church with another brother Greg and his wife Marta. We met Steve’s Mom before she went to heaven recently. Steve’s positive traits run in the family. What a heritage!