Karen: “For me it was a bit of a lifeline – I’d recommend anyone reach out”

For firefighter Jim Johnson’s wife Karen, the Charity has supported her not once, but twice - more recently providing a much-needed break following a cancer diagnosis. Now she’s urging anyone else struggling to reach out.

As a paramedic, Karen Johnson spends her days saving other people’s lives – so when it came to her own health battle, she once again put others before herself and focused on ensuring her husband and sons were okay.

However, after reaching out to the Charity, she says she was finally forced to take time out and focus on herself – and it proved a lifeline. The mum-of-two, 51, whose husband Jim, 57, is a full-time airport firefighter on the Isles of Scilly, as well as a retained firefighter in his local station, saw first-hand how much the Charity can help beneficiaries 25 years ago.

“When we had our second son, I got flown off the island because he wasn’t behaving himself! I had to have him on the mainland,” says Karen. “Obviously Jim came with me and the hospital could only accommodate myself. Someone contacted the Charity on Jim’s behalf and they arranged for him to have a B&B for two nights near the hospital while I had the baby.

“It was such a huge weight off our minds. That’s when I first knew the Charity was there for firefighters and retired firefighters – but I didn’t know it extended to families until later.”

That all changed around 10 years ago when Karen was sadly diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery immediately, as the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes by then, and began an intense course of chemotherapy.

“The treatments were intense. Living on Scilly meant I had to go away for them too. It often meant overnight stays in Truro, allowing for time with my oncologist, having my bloods done and the treatments,” says Karen. “Ironically my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer at the same time. We laugh about it now, he had his radiotherapy treatment the session before mine. He was coming out and would say, ‘come on girl, your turn!’

“The physical recovery following the surgery wasn’t too bad. I had a few infections, but I think it’s more the psychological side rather than the physical. It’s the cause over whether it will come back again, constantly.”

It was during her treatments that Jim’s fire service colleagues suggested they speak to the Charity again. They were offered a stay at our Marine Court centre, as some respite in between Karen’s chemo ending and a six-week course of radiotherapy.

“The stay there was great because it had been such an intense time. Our eldest son, Ben, had just left home to go to college in Truro. He’d gone in the September, at 16 years old, and around three weeks after was when I found out my news,” says Karen. “On the flipside, it meant he was able to come to my chemo sessions there. Lewis, our youngest son, had the rough end of the deal because he saw me at my worst. He was the one that had to step up bless him, because he was only 14 at the time.

“When we first arrived at Marine Court we had such a lovely welcome. There were a lot of retired firefighters when we were there, and everyone was lovely. The room was beautiful and big with a lovely bathroom and we used the facilities there too – the gym and the swimming pool. It gave us a chance to focus on what had happened, to completely recharge before the next round of treatment. We didn’t realise the support that was available to be honest.”

While Karen says she has support on offer through her own career as a paramedic, she couldn’t believe the amazing help she was able to receive through Jim’s work.

“It gave us a chance to just soak up what had happened and focus on me.”

Karen Johnson

“I’d recommend anybody to reach out after my experience,” she adds. “For me, the break was a bit of a lifeline, it really was. Everything happened so quickly and I think I was totally focused on the boys before, making sure they were okay and understood. The treatment was awful, but I wanted to make sure the boys and Jim were okay. At that point, I think we just buried our heads in the sand and got on with it.

“Then when we got offered that break, it gave us a chance to just soak up what had happened and focus on me. It gave me a bit of time to have a meltdown and understand. Having walks together, talks together and planning the next stage, it was all hugely beneficial to us.”

The break away also gave Karen a Jim a chance to enjoy some days out – including a memorable one in Brighton.

“We went down to Brighton Pier on one day, it was a beautiful day, but I later realised I’d forgotten to put suncream on my head and it was so burnt. You don’t even think about it! I bought a hat after that!” she laughs.

Karen says it’s a break that she’ll forever be thankful for and, having seen Jim and his colleagues fundraise for the Charity for years with car washes and open days at their station, she’s urging others to continue supporting the Charity for years to come.

If you or your family is trying to adjust to a major health diagnosis and you need help, get in touch with us. Our team of specialists continue to provide remote support to beneficiaries throughout the pandemic, so call our Support Line on 0800 389 8820 or make an enquiry online.