A “mother’s intuition” is often talked about, but is there any way to determine how accurate it really is? For La Toya Johnson, all the evidence she needs of this intuitive bond is the fact that her daughter is still alive after 2 bouts with cancer.
Cancer at Age 4?
Although it was more than a decade ago, La Toya remembers when her daughter Yuntasha, just 4 years old at the time, got sick and began throwing up. Most parents would have waited to call the doctor to see if the illness passed on its own, but La Toya felt a sense of urgency.
“I had this motherly instinct that something was just not right,” she said. “I took her to the hospital, where they did a chest x-ray and the next day I received a call saying that I needed to go back.”
La Toya was told that in addition to pneumonia, her daughter had a golf ball–sized mass in her left lung. Yuntasha was diagnosed with stage I neuroblastoma.
“The initial shock was scary. I was a young mom, I was single, I had just had a baby,...I just cried a lot,” says La Toya.
But she remained strong for her children’s sake and adjusted to the routine of blood work, tests, and treatment. A move to California brought her closer to family and gave her and Yuntasha strong community support, in part thanks to the Emilio Nares Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that provides free transportation to at-need children undergoing cancer treatment. Yuntasha used the service while she was being treated for the neuroblastoma and continued to use it for checkups after the cancer was in remission.
La Toya credits intuition with getting her daughter diagnosed and treated quickly. If she did not decide that Yuntasha throwing up warranted a trip to the hospital, Yuntasha might have been diagnosed with cancer at a later date and potentially with a more progressive disease. Instead, La Toya’s motherly instinct helped Yuntasha get and stay in remission for nearly a decade.
A Second Cancer at Age 16
Then early in 2016, history repeated itself. Yuntasha began acting odd; she would zone out or make no response when someone was speaking to her. La Toya immediately took her to a doctor, but he thought that no testing was needed, and sent them on their way.
A week later, after a particularly bad episode of Yuntasha not acknowledging her mother, La Toya called 911.
Doctors again initially brushed off Yuntasha’s actions as selective hearing, but this time an MRI showed a tumor in her right cranium and a massive amount of fluid in her brain. Although oncologists were not able—and are still unable—to specifically name the type of tumor she has, it was determined to be stage IV.
La Toya sometimes questions if things would’ve been easier for her daughter if she had been fully evaluated and given an MRI at that first doctor’s appointment.
“Never stop asking. Stay on those doctors,” La Toya said, advising other parents to trust their gut. “If you feel something is wrong and your doctor isn’t doing something, go to someone else.”
In April 2016, Yuntasha had the fluid drained from her brain and had her first brain surgery.
But the tumor grew back so quickly that another surgery was needed just 3 days later. During the second surgery, the surgeon was able to get 96% of the tumor out.
Yuntasha’s cancer is currently in remission.
Learning to Live with Cancer
For the nearly 6 months Yuntasha spent in and out of the hospital, La Toya was by her side. The stress was felt by everyone in the family, which includes 8 children.
“It was this cancer that almost took me away, because I didn’t know how to handle it,” La Toya said. “It was harder on me than anyone else in the family, because I had already been through one cancer, and to have to go through another one was hard.”
But as with Yuntasha’s first fight with cancer, La Toya has adapted and learned what needs to be done to care for her daughter.
“It is very difficult, and I just take everything day by day,” La Toya said. “You’d be amazed with how much I remember.”
But no matter how experienced the parent or caregiver is, mistakes can happen. “I had a slip up one day with her medicine, and just broke down and cried. The nurses told me, ‘It’s ok, it’s ok, you’re always on top of everything,’” La Toya said. The nurses told her that the mistake was small, and Yuntasha would be okay. “I needed to hear that reassurance,” she said.
Follow your intuition. No matter what it is. That’s one thing I’ve prided myself on as a mother. I follow my intuition, because if I had not on either one of those occasions, I don’t know where my child would be.—La Toya Johnson
Despite several mental and physical problems that Yuntasha lives with now, as a result of where the tumor was located on her brain, La Toya doesn’t need a nurse to tell her that her daughter is emotionally doing okay; Yuntasha does that herself through her positive attitude.
“She is the most humble person I have ever met...she’s taken all of this with such grace, such happiness,” La Toya said. “I try as a parent to be on that level, but...you can’t help but want to take all of this away.”
Helping Other Families
Although she may not be able to take away Yuntasha’s experience, La Toya hopes to help other families that have the same type of tumor that Yuntasha has, by helping oncologists understand it better.
“We went through genetic testing to try and find out what this tumor was,” La Toya said. The testing found 4 chromosomes that could have caused the cancer, but the doctors are unsure which one ultimately was the cause.
They also donated a sample of the tumor to research, so that no other families would have to go through the added shock and pain of not knowing what kind of tumor their child had.
Even as a parent with more than a decade’s worth of hands-on experience and knowledge of treating 2 pediatric cancers, La Toya still relies on her motherly instincts to guide her.
“Follow your intuition. No matter what it is. That’s one thing I’ve prided myself on as a mother,” La Toya says. “I follow my intuition, because if I had not on either one of those occasions, I don’t know where my child would be.”