Her's is an inspirational message

Jan. 28, 2014 @ 05:28 PM

When the yearbook club at Northern Vance High School dedicated a page to Whitney Johnson, the Northern Vance senior made sure it did not focus on her battle with cancer.

“I’m a very positive person and I am going to stay positive,” Johnson said.

“People who came to me saying ‘I’m so sorry,’ I would say, ‘No, no, don’t be sorry for me. I’m fine and I’m going to make it through this.’ I told everybody around me, ‘If you are going to talk about the negative stuff, I don’t want to hear it because negativity is going to do nothing but bring me down.”

Johnson, a Henderson native, doesn’t allow her cancer diagnosis to define her or hinder her success.

She was one of six students in the state recently nominated by June Atkinson, state superintendent of schools, for recognition through the national Presidential Scholars Program.

The Presidential Scholars Program was established in 1964, by executive order of President Lyndon B. Johnson, to recognize and honor academically distinguished graduating high school seniors.

In 1979, the program was extended to recognize students who demonstrate exceptional talent in the visual, creative and performing arts. Each year, up to 141 students are named as Presidential Scholars, one of the nation’s highest honors for high school students.

Johnson is ranked second among her class of 170 students and has maintained a perfect grade point average, even while taking Advanced Placement classes almost every semester.

In the state level recognition letter sent to Johnson, Atkinson wrote, “Whitney, I am so very sorry to hear of your ongoing battle with cancer. I know that remaining focused on school has not always been easy and I commend you for your commitment to achieving academic success under these difficult circumstances. I also know that your family, friends, teachers and school administrators must be very proud of you.”

Johnson was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma at the end of her freshman year in July 2011.

“I didn’t really know what Hodgkin lymphoma was but of course I researched it and, actually they say if you were to have one cancer and you had to choose, that is what you would choose because it has the highest cure rate,” Johnson said.

Childhood Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that develops in the lymph system, which is part of the body’s immune system.

According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for patients with stage I or II Hodgkin lymphoma is 90 percent, while those with stage III have an 80 percent five-year survival rate and stage IV patients have a 65 percent five-year survival rate.

After she was diagnosed, Johnson started volunteering as a motivational speaker at local schools and participated in Relay for Life.

Her team, Whitney’s Hope, raised more than $7,000.

Johnson said she named the team after her favorite scripture, Jeremiah, 29:11, “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’”

Her Relay team held bake sales, sold T-shirts and wristbands and accepted online donations to reach their total.

Johnson has also founded two community service projects to benefit children cancer patients at the Duke Children’s Hospital.

Through Hats for Hope, Johnson and her volunteers knit hats for child cancer patients during the winter and her other program, Cards for Hope, distributes homemade cards.

Johnson has led efforts at home, her school and other local schools to recruit volunteers to knit hats and make cards for the patients at Duke.

At Northern Vance, Johnson is the president of the National Honors Society, an academic and service-based organization.

“I really have passion for service,” she said. “It’s about understanding that there are people out there in need, not just cancer patients but everybody.”

She hopes to inspire others to serve their communities, have faith in God and have hope.

Since April 2012, Johnson’s cancer has been in remission and she says her experience has led her to pursue a nursing degree at UNC Greensboro.

Angela Gardner-Ragland, Johnson’s mother, said her daughter has always wanted to be a teacher but her exposure to the health profession caused her to rethink teaching.

“Whitney loves people and cares about people,” Gardner-Ragland said. “I remember one of her elementary school teachers said, ‘Whitney can’t go about her day if everyone in her class isn’t OK, and she is going to go to the child that has issues and try to cheer them up or else she can’t go on.’”

Johnson will graduate from Northern Vance in June, a month after the names of the 2014 U.S. Presidential Scholars are announced.

Until then, Johnson is keeping busy with her classes, volunteering and working her job at a local cardiologists’ office.

“I used to say, ‘Once I’m done with treatment, I am never stepping into another hospital,’” Johnson said, “and it’s just like God worked it out and now I love nursing.”


Contact the writer at smansur@hendersondispatch.com.