From Tragedy to Triumph: Detroiter Neicy Johnson Steps Forward. Back
Nov 13, 2014
By Tracey Bivens
Life will throw you as many blows as it wants to. There’s no avoiding it. There has never been a period in anyone’s life where we have not had to overcome financial, social,
professional, or any other kind of woe at one time or another. However, when it comes to the magnitude of what Detroiter Neicy Johnson has had to endure… it can make some of things that we call "pain and suffering”, pale in comparison to what this young lady has encountered in her life. Behind the ever present smile that Neicy keeps on her face, she manages to give us insight on how she has dealt with the struggle of a cancer diagnosis, pioneering a support system for survivors, the importance of family and she even manages to talk about steppin. As the author of this interview, I ask that you not pity Neicy Johnson as your read it but draw from inner strength because this is by no means a story that focuses on her obstacles but rather one of those rare stories that embraces a champion survivor and lover of life.
Tracey: In my writing career, I’ve conducted a lot of interviews with individuals in the steppin community. I’ve spoken to its pioneers, I’ve covered the mega events and spoken to steppin "celebrities” but this is definitely the first time that I stand in awe because I don’t have the opportunity to speak with people who have the magnitude of your physical, mental and emotional strength. Describe for us the day when the earth stood still for you.
Neicy: I’ll start with the day that I found the knot in my neck. It was in February 2004. I was on lunch. I’m really in tune with my body, so I’m always feeling and touching to make sure nothing is out of the ordinary. I was driving and I had my right hand on my neck and felt a knot on left side. A week later… I was getting my hair done and I felt like I was going to pass out. The next day on a Saturday I went to ER…I advised the ER doctor of the knot and a scan of my neck and my head was performed. When the results came back, the doctor informed me that the radiologist saw a mass in my neck and my back. Because I had no clue what that meant, I was worried. I was referred to an oncologist and was scheduled for a neck biopsy. A couple of weeks passed before the results were due to come back. During that time, I was a basket case. I tried to go on with my days as normal and not worry but it was very difficult. On March 4, 2004, my life changed. It was the day I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma which is cancer of the lymph tissues. I knew nothing about it except that is was cancer. Of course I was in shock. I remember the doctor saying to me, "If you have any type of cancer…THIS is the one you want to have because the survival rate is very high.” that didn’t make me feel better at all. I’ve been very independent throughout my adult life and handled this appointment alone because I didn’t want to alarm my family. I definitely should not have gone to the doctor by myself that day. I was crying in the office and all I could think about were my children. The thought of death was my companion from that moment on. I was numb. I remember the walk from the doctor’s office to the car. It seems like it took forever to get to my car. I sat in the car…cried…and called my family and friends to tell them about my diagnoses. I went home and everything started from there. I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be but I was ready to get the ball rolling. I researched the cancer to get a better understanding and to know what was coming next. A few days later, I was scheduled for a number of tests. I was given a complete scan of my entire body, a test was performed on my lungs, my heart and a bone marrow biopsy which was very painful. The results of the test revealed that the cancer had spread to my neck, under both arms, my lungs and my chest. The stage of the cancer was at stage 3B. I had read that there were only 4 stages and I was very close. Of course, I believed I was not going to survive. On March 22nd is when my chemotherapy began.
Tracey: There are a lot of people who reach for alcohol, weed, sex, etc. in an effort to deal with things they don’t want to face in life. You obviously reached for a higher spiritual plane. How were you able to keep your sanity?
Neicy: (Long pause) through prayer. I did a lot of praying and had a lot of people praying for me. The one thing I did not do was keep my diagnoses a secret. I knew I couldn’t get through this alone. As I stated before, I am very independent but this was a battle I wasn’t ready to face by myself. My family, friends and church family were very supportive the entire time. The week of my treatments which I had every other Monday, my mom took care of me and helped me with my children. I am so grateful for her. It took me a minute to come to grips with it all. A few months after I started chemotherapy, I wanted to give up. I was tired. The chemotherapy treatments were rough. My treatments were administered in my arm and many days I sat there for 4 to 5 hours wanting to rip the IV out and go home. I faked a lot of the things that go along with the side effects because I didn’t want my family to worry. The chemotherapy took a toll on my body and as soon as I was starting to feel a little better, it was time for another treatment. About 3 months into the chemo, I received a chest Medi-port which made the treatments easier and faster. At times, I would sit and visualize my children who were 13 and 5 at the time, being here without me. So I had to pull it together and push through it. Without a doubt my children motivated me to gain the strength and the will to fight. In August 2004, my sister announced that she was pregnant. While growing up, she always said she didn’t want children. When she told my family she was having a baby, I was excited about being an aunt. I told myself that I need to be here so I can help her take care of her baby even though she had a husband. (Laughing) At that point…the fight was on. My niece was born March 31st 2005 with Cerebral Palsy and collectively, as a family we help my sister and brother in law take care of my niece. See how God works?
I was on disability for 8 months and on my good days, the week I didn’t have treatment, I voluntarily went to work two days a week. The week of my treatment on Tuesday through Friday, I would drive myself to the hospital to have an injection to keep my immune system up. Afterwards, I volunteered at my son’s school. My being able to work and get out of the house helped me with the depression that was setting in. I pushed through my remaining treatments. The doctors gave me a lot of ft but I was determined to get through it without over doing it. Throughout my journey, I continued to pray.
In September 2004 (I can’t remember the exact date) I was scheduled for an appointment to get some results from my scan. On my way to the doctor, I saw darkness. Everything was dark to me. I felt like I couldn’t hear anything…things were moving in slow motion…it was weird. I didn’t know going into the doctor’s office what my scan would show. I was really nervous. I remembered one time I saw a different doctor in my doctor’s absence. She told me because I was stage 3B, the cancer will most likely come back and that mindset always stuck with me when I went in for my checkups. When my doctor came in, he told me exactly what I prayed for. I was CANCER FREE!!!… I cried through the entire visit. They were happy tears and all of a sudden, the darkness surrounding me was no longer. I thought I was done with the treatments but he wanted me to have 2 more treatments for preventive reason. I completed my last chemotherapy October 25, 2004 and recently celebrated 10 years Cancer Free. About 2 years later… my drive to help others who were battling cancer began. During my treatments, my finances suffered…my living expenses and my children suffered which caused some issues. That’s when I decided I wanted to help other families dealing with cancer by lifting some of their burden.
Tracey: There have been women all over this country, particularly in the steppin community who are forging the fight with cancer. Chicagoans Darice Jones Goodwin and Angie Fletcher have both had very real time struggles with their cancers with Facebook pictures and all. What generated your interest in chronicling the stories of survivors?
Neicy: First let me say, those two women have been such an inspiration to me and others that read their journey. They have demonstrated such courage, strength and faith throughout their battle with breast cancer.
About a year after I was diagnosed with the cancer, I kept saying that I wanted to do something for cancer on a larger scale. I would do the walks, donate and purchase cancer related items but that wasn’t enough. A few years ago, I came across some women on the internet that were featured in a calendar in a different state. These women were all breast cancer survivors. A couple of years ago my finances were blessed and the project was still on my heart. I had no clue what I was doing but I stepped out on faith, and put my plans into motion. I posted on FB that I was looking for 12 women that are cancer survivors or battling cancer to participate in the photo shoot. In hopes their stories will be a blessing to other women that are battling cancer and do not see a light at the end of the tunnel. To also encourage them and relaying that despite the chemotherapy, hair loss, surgeries, radiation, tears, pain and depression they are still beautiful on the inside and outside. The 24 ladies that appear in my calendars have incredible survivor stories. I have learned so much from these ladies. I then decided that I didn’t want the calendar to be just about breast cancer survivors so I included all cancers. My plan is continue this project as long as I can. I have a 23 year old daughter and a god daughter and I have expressed to them that if anything happens to me, I would like for them to continue what I started. I am also looking to do a calendar for men cancer survivors as well. Because men are so private, I know it will be a challenge that I am most definitely prepared to handle.J. There are so many men I believe that battled with cancer and beat it. I just think if more men talk about their experiences it can help other men that maybe facing this disease.
It’s important we listen to their bodies and if there is something going on that’s not normal, we must go to the doctor and stop self-diagnosing ourselves. Early detection can save your life.
Tracey: I feel you on wanting to feature the men who have survived cancer because they don’t typically communicate with the world about this illness like the women do. Frank Silky Slim Westley stepped out on faith in the Detroit steppin community by letting the world see him as a survivor officially last year and he is surely to be commended for his bravery in doing that. However, I know two other men in our local community who choose not to share because they are simply not there in the process yet.
Your calendars would most assuredly make wonderful holiday gifts this season because of the individual testimonies of courage and strength. How can people purchase the calendars?
Neicy: I have a website www.womentolb.com. The calendars are $20.00. A portion of the funds raised will be donated to 3 cancer centers in effort to assist with medical bill, utility bills, living expenses, transportation and medical equipment etc.
Tracey: You have been featured in a lot of pictures on Facebook and your sister and cousins are ever present in a lot of them. The bond between you all is very pronounced. For those of us who have sought sisterhood in sororities, or have sisters at home, can you talk about what you believe the true meaning of sisterhood and family means to you?
Neicy: For me it means…family first. I am very family oriented. I absolutely love my family! Our friends that come to our family gatherings…they see that loving side and stare in awe. If anyone claims to know anything about me, they know THAT I love my family. Anyone who comes around, and been around for years are considered family. We can’t get rid of them if we tried. LOL!! We all look out for each other and respect one another. We may have our differences (what family doesn’t) but we stick together like glue. We’re bringing up our children…the generation after us to stay close, look out and take care of each other.. In this world…we all need to love on each other more. The family photos I post on FB is myself and Trina Perryman (my sister), Shordee Kelly and Lanette Catching (sisters) and we’re all cousins. So that’s how we came up with Sister/Cousin J. I have a number of family members in the dance community Toni Cleaves, Angie Larson and John Isabel (Ballroomer) are my cousins. When we all get together, we have a good time.
Tracey: Let’s look at the steppin world in Detroit. It’s not the easiest dance to learn or do; it’s filled with the petty nuances just like other organizations and it can be very demanding on one’s social life. Yet, you just received a certificate from the You + Me =We organization which recognized your dedication towards improving your basic skills in the dance. Why was it important for you to learn how to step?
Neicy: Before I started steppin… I couldn’t dance a lick. (Laughing) off beat and all. I was introduced to the dance in 2009. I wasn’t serious about the dance at that time. I just enjoyed the socializing and the music. My first trip with the steppin community was 2011. I attended the WLSC. It was so overwhelming but I had a good time. I was traveling before steppin but now that I am part of the community, I travel even more and I love it. I enjoy meeting new people, laughter, dancing, taking pictures just having pure fun. I love the Grown and Sexy atmosphere. I love the sexiness and smoothness that I see on the dance floor. In the last few months, I have become more familiar with the Old School Steppin. I’ve watched a number of videos on You Tube and I must say I like it. The other stuff/drama that comes along with the dance…I don’t participate in. I come out with my family and friends and we enjoy ourselves. When I first started dancing, I did care what people on the sidelines thought about my dance. I was afraid to mess up or to be out there looking crazy. LOL!! I still struggle with it sometimes but not as much. I attend classes on Tuesday and Thursday with Drew Alexander Smooth-Tivity Production and he works with me a lot. I took session one with U+ME=WE and received a certificate of completion along with the other students. I enjoyed the sessions and found them beneficial for what I want to do which is enhance my dance. After the session ended, I was given feedback from U+ME=WE and Drew that I need to show more confidence in my dance. Since then, I have stepped my game up. I’m working on relaxing and on my sexy LOL!!! When time permits, I plan to take the rest of the sessions. Yes, steppin can be demanding on your social life. Because I have other obligations outside of the dance world, I balance very well. I’m not able to participate in as many events as I like to. I get out as much as I can.
Tracey: I imagine you have to keep stress as the lowest levels possible in your life but in light of the recent demise of your father…it just seems that the pressures of life refuse to let up. How are you still standing?
Neicy: I can’t say that it’s been easy for me. I try my best to keep my stress level at a minimum due to me not wanting the cancer to return. The one thing that keeps me going are my children. Also I’m working on a few more projects that will allow me to do what I love doing and that’s helping others. My family have experienced a loss every year since 2003. So the last 11 years has been difficult for us. I have my moments when I feel like I am carrying a lot of weight on my shoulder and it’s just that, a MOMENT. I don’t stay there long. I had a moment this past Sunday, I needed to get out so I went to Firewater to dance a little bit and be around some people. My father was murdered in Memphis, TN on September 28th. When my father was taken from me… I was angry and hurt. Losing a parent is a different experience. It’s very difficult losing a parent. When I received the call, I was devastated. I did the only thing I could do. In between the tears, I prayed. I even prayed for the person that took his life. In hope that he/she would find it in their heart to come forth. It’s only been a month and a half and I am doing ok some days are rougher than others. I have five sisters in Memphis and we call to check on each other. We pray that soon we’ll have some closure and justice will be served. I actually met a few people on Facebook that experienced the same type of circumstances surrounding the death of a parent. It helps to talk to others that understands and been where you are. I have a 3 year old granddaughter Mariyah who keeps me on my toes. She brings me joy and keeps a smile on my face.
Tracey: Neicy…you have the final word.
Neicy: There is a song by Marvin Sapp called "My Testimony” that I listen to. I encourage those that are going through anything to listen to this song. I guarantee you will be blessed.
My relationship with God is how I made it through my adversity. I know that it’s only by the Grace of God I am still here. It’s important that we understand that tomorrow or the next hour is not promised. Life is too short to sweat the small things. Love on your family and friends while they’re still here. Tell them you love them. Every time I leave a set, a family member’s house or anyplace, I make sure I hug and love on as many people as I can. I’m saying be careful, be safe and love you”. We must enjoy life while we’re living.
Today I’m going to be listening to a song that wouldn’t be considered a steppers cut in the traditional sense but it definitely brings to mind the story of Neicy Johnson. India Aire says in "Strength, Courage and Wisdom,”
"Strength, courage, and wisdom
It's been inside of me all along,
Strength, courage, wisdom
It's been inside of me all along, everyday I'm praying for it:
I found it in me, I found it finally
I'm sure to keep it' cause I like it, I say thank you.”