Heaven is for Real: Tyrone Junior Overcomes Childhood Cancer

Michelle looking over McKenzie

Tyrone junior McKenzie Johnson’s friends describe her as sweet, outgoing, and helpful.  To meet her, you would never guess what she went through during her first two years of life.

Battling cancer at birth, Johnson’s first few years were a challenge and an inspiration for both her and her family.

“Sometimes faith was all we had because the doctors gave us terrible odds, but every time, she beat them. No matter what the obstacle was, she beat every one of them, even after the doctors were certain she wouldn’t,”  her mother Michelle said.

Sometimes faith was all we had because the doctors gave us terrible odds, but every time, she beat them. No matter what the obstacle was, she beat every one of them, even after the doctors were certain she wouldn’t

— Michelle Johnson

McKenzie was born with stage three hepatoblastoma (liver cancer) that originated in the womb. The cancer wasn’t diagnosed though until six days after her first birthday.

Her mom sensed weeks, even months before she has diagnosed that something was wrong, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. McKenzie’s stomach was enlarged, and every time Michelle would try to come in contact with this bulge, McKenzie would flinch or cry because of the pain.

Numerous doctor appointments were made, but every doctor said the same thing; she is fine.

For days McKenzie had constant earaches and infections and woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. Finally, a man named Dr. James Powell diagnosed her with liver cancer. She still sees Dr. Powell to this day.

The doctors at the Danville hospital performed two surgeries on young McKenzie that removed a large portion of her liver followed by chemotherapy, but both treatments were unsuccessful. The chemo lasted a year after the first surgery and then six to eight weeks went by without it after the second surgery. This was because she was healing from the removal of her liver. They restarted the chemo again from October to December of that same year.

The doctors said that they would not be able to get the entire tumor out and might even have to amputate her leg because of a foot drop that wasn’t allowing proper blood flow through the leg. The grapefruit sized tumor grew into her abdomen and moved her organs around.  

In a risky surgery, doctors were able to remove 80% of it. After the first surgery there was a problem with her inferior vena cava vein. She had thrown clots to both her legs, and her right leg turned black. McKenzie also lost her hair from the chemo and doctors weren’t expecting her to live past her second birthday.

Miraculously, McKenzie survived and the cancer went into remission. Her last round of chemo was finished on December 3 of her second year of life. The date is important to Johnson because that day is also her best friend Emily Fusco’s birthday. 

McKenzie’s story would be amazing enough if that were all she experienced, but many more miracles have occurred in McKenzie’s life since that day.

When McKenzie was two years old and healthy enough to go out, she and her mom went Christmas shopping. When they reached the Christmas tree display, McKenzie pointed to the angel ornaments and told her mom that she knew they were angels. Michelle was confused because she had never taught McKenzie about angels before and asked how she knew that. To her mother’s amazement McKenzie replied, “I flied with them.” She told her mom that there were three angels. Two of them were on her one side and one was on the other. They were all dressed in white. McKenzie’s story is very similar to the story in 2010 bestselling book “Heaven is for Real.”

Another incident occurred while two year old McKenzie was in the bathtub. According to her mom, McKenzie mentioned her grandmother, whom she had never met, by name.  Michelle’s mother (McKenzie’s grandmother) had passed away when Michelle was only 14. Astounded, Michelle just looked at McKenzie in awe.

On another occasion, at a wedding for one of her parent’s friends, McKenzie saw a picture of Jesus that was painted on the dome in the church.  McKenzie asked her mom where the baby was. No one had told McKenzie about Jesus before, but she recognized him in the painting. She implied that she was the baby and Jesus had held her during the surgeries while removing her tumor, so she questioned why wasn’t she up there. Her parents felt secure in knowing that God was watching over them because they had a strong faith in God.

Another miracle happened when McKenzie was three. Her mother was pregnant with McKenzie’s little brother, Jacob. McKenzie was not old enough to understand, but she told her mom that she knew she was pregnant and that it was going to be a boy. Michelle said, “You are being silly. There is no baby in my belly.”  A few days later, Michelle found out that she was going to have a baby boy.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation also played a big part in McKenzie’s recovery. Through Make-A -Wish McKenzie and her family were able to take a trip to Disney World. 

Not every bad thing that happens to you will have a bad outcome in the end. You just have to stay positive no matter what and trust in God that he’ll take care of everything

— McKenzie Johnson

While standing in line to get an autograph from the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, the Queen saw McKenzie and left her spot at the photo station to come see her. She brought McKenzie to the front of the extensive line and got a picture with her. She also gave her a pin and a hug. “I got a lot of special treatment at Disney from literally everyone. It seemed like all of Disney knew who I was,” said McKenzie.

McKenzie has been cancer free since age three and is now a healthy sixteen year old making a difference in the lives of others.

She is very involved in her school and community, participating in POPS Extension, Student Council, YAN (Youth Action Network), HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America), OAC (Outdoor Adventure Club), NHS (National Honors Society), and dancing at Dance Fusion in Tyrone.

When asked if cancer has changed her, she replied, “I mean physically yeah. I have a scar on my belly now, but I think it just taught me to be optimistic even if everything is crumbling down around me. There’s still hope.”

The experience has made McKenzie a fighter and strengthened her faith in God.

“Not every bad thing that happens to you will have a bad outcome in the end. You just have to stay positive no matter what and trust in God that he’ll take care of everything,” said Johnson.

“As a parent finding out your child has cancer is devastating and you have a sense of helplessness because you can’t do anything,” said McKenzie’s dad, Shawn.

“It changed me forever,” added her mom, “I’ll never be the same person after witnessing all the things that happened to her. A piece of my heart was broken knowing I could of lost her and it’s still something that I think about each night before I go to bed. I still feel that God knew best.”

McKenzie’s story is one to remember because no matter how bad it may seem, there’s always a place on the other side. Whether the other side is living or going to heaven with Jesus, you will always be loved. McKenzie fought and is now living a healthy life. With minor illnesses here and there, McKenzie lives a normal life with friends and family who love her.