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Ballroom healing: CU Nursing director dances toward recovery

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Written by Debra Melani on July 8, 2019


A sense of sadness struck Linda Johnson just before the phone rang. Although it marked the end of a long road, the three-time cancer survivor was facing a breast implant surgery.

More healing. More downtime. No swimming.

Battling her sinking feeling, Johnson answered the phone. Would she join “Dancing with the Broomfield Stars,” a person from her local Broomfield Community Foundation asked.

“I knew I had to do it,” said Johnson, DNP, assistant professor in the University of Colorado College of Nursing and specialty director of the Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner program. She immediately said yes.

Determined nature overcomes adversity

After being partnered with Timmy Merz and making sure the owner of Booth Dancesport Ballroom in Denver was aware of her health issues, Johnson began her dance training — and what turned into an ongoing healing journey.

“Linda has improved probably more than any other student I’ve ever worked with,” said Merz, whose athletic background and approach meshed with Johnson’s. “Not a lot of people really commit to going that deep and being that vulnerable, but Linda had no problem doing that.”

Facing down cancer three times might have had something to do with Johnson’s courage.

First cancer forces self-control

In 1993, Johnson felt a small lump on her back while studying for her Women's Health Nurse Practitioner national certification exam. It was cancer. “I was devastated.”

Until then a healthy mom of three young children, Johnson said the rare liposarcoma sidelined her for more than three months, teaching her self-control and appreciation of life’s little things.

Yet, as soon as she had a greenlight for training, she was back in the pool and placing in the Master’s National Swim Competition.

Cancer strikes two, then three, times

Six years later, a breast cancer diagnosis sidelined Johnson again. After a lumpectomy and radiation therapy, the busy mom of young wrestlers, dancers, swimmers, and soccer players moved on — until a mammogram four years later.

Her cancer was back. This time, doctors recommended a double mastectomy.

“It was summer and my favorite time of the year,” Johnson recalled. I was deciding what procedure to have, and if I was going to have reconstructive surgery.”

Johnson was also seeing her youngest child off to college and completing her own Doctorate of Nursing Practice program at CU Nursing while dealing with round three of her cancer fight.

Accepted invitation turns ‘life changing’

Johnson performed her dance debut during “Dancing with the Broomfield Stars” in front of 800 people and loved it. That was supposed to be the end.

But Merz, who sustained a career-ending injury as a collegiate track star and found dancing to fill the void, called Johnson unexpectedly the next day and asked her if she wanted to keep going with lessons.

“I’ve hardly missed a week since,” said Johnson, who still trains and competes with Merz. She said her dancing worked as both emotional and physical therapy.

“I am so grateful for an instructor who understands the healing process,” she said, adding she also appreciates the opportunity to keep training and learn ballroom dancing.

“It was life changing,” she said, encouraging other patients and students to accept challenges that might seem undoable. “If you really want to do it, you can make it work.”

Topics: Faculty