Meet April Johnson Stearns, Founder, Editor-in-Chief, of Wildfire Magazine. April was diagnosed at 35 years old with Stage 3 breast cancer. Four years later, while struggling to “go back to normal” and find other women in similar circumstances, April launched Wildfire Magazine. Now she enjoys not only publishing the stories of those “too young for breast cancer," she also finds pleasure in helping others heal through learning to write and share their stories. April lives with her family on the coast of central California where, when she isn't writing, teaching, or editing, she can be found baking bread, hiking in the redwood forest, or nose-deep in a book. To learn more about Wildfire, click here or visit their Instagram here.
It was the final weeks of winter in 2012. In California the cherry blossoms grew fat in the bud, and a secret tumor grew in my breast. I was occupied with Nia: my little brown-eyed “Mini Me.” At 3, she still held my hand wherever we went, gripping tightly when she felt awed or scared or just connected. We were in love, inseparable, enjoying life and discovering little adventures together. As she grew, we strayed further and further from home. One day I amazed her by asking if she wanted to take a boat to dinner. We took the ferry from Oakland across the Bay to San Francisco for dinner in the Ferry Building. All evening her eyes were big with wonder. As we drove home that night, my heart swelled with the-world-is-our-oyster feelings. It felt like my daughter and I were emerging from a long winter of babyhood together into a brave new world.
Even though I knew she was in good, loving hands, I cried as much for the diagnosis (and astonishment that my body could do this) as I did for the separation from my little one and the disruption to our happy routine.
And then the diagnosis arrived. Stage 3 HER2+ invasive ductal carcinoma, otherwise known as breast cancer. Suddenly, instead of adventuring hand in hand, my daughter and I were in different places. I was on an endless carousel of waiting rooms, exam rooms, scan rooms. While my husband accompanied me to this barrage of appointments, Nia found herself spending long hours with her grandparents. Even though I knew she was in good, loving hands, I cried as much for the diagnosis (and astonishment that my body could do this) as I did for the separation from my little one and the disruption to our happy routine. Following the diagnosis came a neoadjuvant chemotherapy regime that required I be away from home for whole days while the IV fluid dripped slowly into my veins. The schedule stretched out over months. I was diagnosed in March and I will never forget my astonishment when my new oncologist said he hoped to have me done with treatment by the following April.
I had no choice but to do the treatment plan laid out before me, but I also wanted nothing more than a loving, stable home for my child. I was consumed by guilt: I was the one who had brought cancer and it's disruption into our family. Our lives exploded from the inside. Late at night as the wind blew through the oak tree outside my bedroom window, as my husband and Nia slept in our bed, I faced the window and watched the limbs sway, mirroring the turmoil within me. I knew the cancer wasn't really my fault, but still I cried and cried. I couldn't imagine what would become of my family. I couldn't imagine Nia spending all those hours without me. Going down for naps and waking and having me still gone, I imagined her tear-streaked face, her arms reaching for me, and my heart broke wide open.
Salvation came in the form of little gifts.
Salvation came in the form of little gifts. As I moved into active treatment, gifts began to arrive in the mailbox. Hats, scarves, teas, and candles. Beautiful journals and fluffy cashmere socks. My friends and family sent me little talismans to show that I was forefront in their minds, but tucked into these boxes of love was something even more valuable to me: they also sent little gifts for Nia. The one I was most worried about wasn't forgotten in the tide of illness that enveloped our home.
The gifts for Nia gave me an idea for “Chemo Gifts.” Each day that I had a chemo infusion, my little one would get a “Chemo Gift.” The gift was a little something sent by a friend and squirreled away to lift the sorrow of a hard day apart: soft stuffed animals, exciting bubble sets, rainbow colored beeswax crayons, puffy pink tutus. Nothing huge or overly expensive, just a little something that distracted and took the sting out of the day for both of us. When I came home depleted after an infusion, I'd find a cheerful girl, excited to share her treasures, and it filled me up with hope.
Slowly we progressed through the ups and downs of the treatment year. Six months of chemotherapy – Nia helped shave my head – was followed by a radical unilateral mastectomy with aesthetic flat closure – Nia helped chart my temperature following surgery. After that came 35 rounds of radiation, and then in April 2013, as my oncologist had hoped all those months before, I completed treatment. Bald, puffy, a little worn around the edges, I was done. I showed no evidence of disease.
My breast cancer story could end there; as I write these words, years have passed now without a recurrence, I'm learning everyday to live in my post-cancer body, and Nia is turning 13 in a few weeks. And yet, my cancer story isn't done. Not yet at least.
When I was diagnosed, the big message I got was that cancer would just be a small detour. Do the work, then get back to real life, get back to normal, they said. So I did the work, but in the years after cancer, I found I was struggling to get back to “normal,” primarily because didn’t know what that looked like anymore. I was the only one I knew who had breast cancer among my friends, family and colleagues. I longed to see how another young person was navigating life after diagnosis. How were they handling medical menopause and unexpected infertility? What about chemo brain and work? How were they navigating intimacy? Did they worry their cancer had damaged their small children somehow? What about the fears of recurrence and survivor’s guilt?
Writing helped me process all that cancer brought into my life and in turn heal.
I longed to hear the stories and see the pictures of others diagnosed under 50. So I went back to my roots: prior to breast cancer I worked as a conference producer with a background in journalism. When Nia was born, I started a blog. It was a way for me to track milestones, share pictures with family and friends, and also use the writing to make sense of all the changes in my life. So when breast cancer came along, my parenting blog shifted quite naturally into a parenting-with-cancer blog. Writing through my treatment and recovery years was a natural response for me, but it proved to be even more critical than I realized. Writing helped me process all that cancer brought into my life and in turn heal.
When Wildfire Magazine began it was little more than a blog, but it was the resource I so desperately needed: stories as a road map.
In 2016, I decided to help others heal through storytelling. I started a magazine for young women facing breast cancer. When Wildfire Magazine began it was little more than a blog, but it was the resource I so desperately needed: stories as a road map. As Booker T. Washington said, “If you want to lift yourself, lift up someone else.” I scoured the Internet and social media looking for young women with breast cancer and then invited them to tell their stories in Wildfire. Little by little it grew until it became a beautiful digital and print magazine, published every other month. In the last five years, I’ve had the privilege and honor of publishing more than 500 stories from women diagnosed in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, from Stage 0 to Stage IV, from all over the world.
I believe deeply that the sharing of our stories — whether through writing our own or reading another’s — helps us all heal, and not feel so alone. Think of these stories as little “Chemo Gifts” from me to you. Just as the little gifts helped my daughter when we were apart, my hope is that each issue of Wildfire lets others going through breast cancer know they are not forgotten. We'll get through together.