Today, meet Joanna Montgomery. Her words of wisdom will leave you happier for each day you wake up and better prepare you to be a friend to anyone battling cancer, as far too many of our friends and loved ones are. Most of all, Joanna is real and open about her fight and we are so grateful to welcome her today as our FACE of Nashville.
We’re always giddy for stories of true love found later in life. By the time you met your husband, had you given up on having kids and marriage?
Pretty much! When we met, I was 40, newly single and had accepted I’d probably never have kids. I’d decided not to date for at least a year, and was eager to nest on my own. I wasn’t looking for love, but the universe said otherwise. Mark walked into my office (I was a paralegal at the time) as a client and we soon knew we were kindreds. I was 43 when we married; 44 when we had Magnolia. Now, I’m 47 with a toddler. It’s never too late!
Can you tell us about being diagnosed with cancer and why you credit your daughter with saving your life?
I’d gone to the hospital thinking I was in labor; it turned out I was having a placental abruption. I underwent an emergency C-section, which revealed a mass on my fallopian tube. I was breastfeeding Maggie five days later when I got the call. If I’d had her sooner, or through natural childbirth, as planned, the mass wouldn’t have been found. And if the mass hadn’t caused enough pain to get me into the ER, the placenta would’ve separated entirely and she’d have died. So my cancer saved my daughter and my daughter saved me!
We were thrilled when you were accepted to a clinical trial. How are you feeling?
Pretty great, all things considered. I’m experiencing side effects, but nothing unmanageable. When I became chemo-resistant, the NYU trial was my best hope. The most challenging parts are the weekly travel and time away from home. But spending a little time away from my family in the short term to gain a lot more time with them in the long term? No brainer.
This is September, GYN/Ovarian Cancer Awareness month. What do you want our readers to learn through you?
Gynecologic cancers are often called “cancers that whisper” because their symptoms are often subtle and indicative of more minor ailments. Pap tests can identify precancerous changes that could cause cervical cancer, but don’t screen for ovarian, fallopian tube or uterine cancers. Listen to your body; tell your doctor about any unexplained changes; make healthy lifestyle choices; know your family health history and get the HPV vaccine (ages 10-26) or HPV test (26+).
What is one piece of helpful advice on being a good friend to someone going through cancer treatment?
Just show up and be yourself. Rather than asking what you can do, just do it. Drop off healthy food, weed their garden, invite their child for a sleepover, stick a funny card in the mailbox. Find holes to fill, ways to pick up slack. It can be hard to accept help, so don’t wait for an ask. Show them by your actions they’re on your mind and you’re there for them.
The last few years have been an emotional whirlwind. Do you have a mantra or piece of advice you lean on?
I believe our bodies hear what our minds say, so I’m careful about the stories I tell myself. I try to turn negative thoughts like “I’m scared of dying” into “I will live a long life.” Or, “I don’t know if I can do this” into “I can do this.” Thinking positively and staying in the present are key for existing in a good headspace. But most important for me is gratitude. I say thank you many times for the tremendous gifts in my life. I even thank the chemicals going into my body for making me well.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the process of launching a nonprofit called The Magnolia Foundation to raise money for gynecologic cancer research. As a fundraising arm of the foundation, I’m working with a BFF, Ambre Rouse, to create a jewelry line called Maggie’s Work. She’s the creative force behind it and makes extraordinarily unique pieces. If you see me wearing a kick-ass necklace, it’s likely one of Ambre’s designs.
I’m also on the Board of the Women Survivors Alliance, and just produced a live stage reading by cancer survivors about their second acts. The event (which capped off last month’s National Women’s Survivors Convention) was a tremendous success. I’m now working to produce events in other markets as a way to raise funds and awareness about issues faced by those living with or recovering from cancer.
One surprising thing I’ve learned on this journey is that the end of treatment is not the end of cancer. Even for those in remission, the physical and psychological effects of treatment can last a lifetime.
Now for some non-cancer questions! What’s something people may be surprised to learn about you?
I have a bit of social anxiety. I love connecting with others, but am an introvert at heart. I’d rather have a root canal than network with strangers. I’m the girl who takes a buddy to mixers and says “please don’t leave me.”
Favorite restaurant in Nashville?
I love what award-winning chef /Top Chef alum Dale Levitski is doing at Sinema, but my heart lies at Flyte. Although well-established, they just get better and better. Their menu’s always innovative; they use local ingredients. Chef even grows a lot of the produce himself. Plus, my husband and I were married there, so it will always be special to us!
What books are currently on your nightstand or e-reader?
I recently discovered Rainbow Rowell, and after devouring Eleanor & Park in one sitting, I’m rapidly blowing through her catalog. I just finished Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling, and started Dan Harris’ 10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice In My Head.
My guilty pleasure is reality television, specifically cooking shows like MasterChef and fashion shows like Project Runway. Also, Prosecco.
How do you re-energize and fill your cup back up?
Going completely off the grid and spending time with my husband and daughter, preferably near water or amongst trees.
The music scene in Nashville, can you name a few under-the-radar bands we should check out?
Even though I don’t get out much these days, we have a soundstage behind our house and I’m fortunate to be surrounded by music. Mark plays guitar in a new band fronted by Jonny Sexton called Feed The Birds. They’re writing great songs and are fun to see live. And I’m loving recent Nashville transplant Rae Cassidy. She’s definitely one to watch. Finally, I love what Nashville’s Made In Network is doing with 24HR Records and Small Batch Presents.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things that you can’t live without?
Pets, candles and alone time!
Thank you, Joanna! Follow Joanna’s battle on her blog: hellojomo.com
SB NOTE & UPDATE: Joanna passed away on July 28, 2015, 10 months after this FACES profile ran. Please consider donating to the Magnolia Foundation, funding early stage “below the belt” cancer research, in Joanna’s memory:
C/o Rashford Kruse
PO Box 121228
Nashville TN 37212
Thank you to Ashley Hylbert for the beautiful photos each week! Ashleyhylbert.com