Gracie Johnson: Set with Inspiration for Life

How Gracie Johnson is honoring her mom’s fight with breast cancer on the volleyball court

When asked to describe her mom, Melissa, Gracie Johnson’s answer was simple – a grizzly bear .

“My mom was a grizzly bear of an individual in how she loved us,” Gracie said. “She loved us hard and would go to war for us. She was our biggest supporter and cared so deeply for us. She was so full of life, love and happiness, and that’s what I will carry with me.”

Weeks after Gracie arrived at Duke as an early-enrolled freshman on the volleyball team in January 2019, she was walking to the dining hall and received a family call. Her mom had been diagnosed with a rare type of stage IV breast cancer, a shocking diagnosis leading to a lot of uncertainty and emotions.

“You never think it’s going to be someone that close to you,” Gracie said. “I’d always had a distant relative or a family friend that you hear about maybe having a connection, but I never thought about it being my own family member. But, right away, my mom was on it and wanted to see how she was going to overcome this battle.”

Gracie Johnson

Melissa immediately went into the fight. She fought as hard as she could, showing toughness and perseverance, refusing to give up. She participated in new treatments and clinical trials. It was hard, with all three of her children playing collegiate athletics, but the entire family rallied around her.

After battling for over four and a half years, Melissa passed away from cancer in June 2023. Throughout her ordeal, she continued to serve as an inspiration of strength to Gracie and the whole Johnson family.

“I’m extremely inspired by my mom,” Gracie said. “She was a fighter all the way until the very end. She never complained about her treatment or what she [was] going through, and I know it wasn’t easy for her. Seeing her power through to the very last day is so inspiring, and I just want to take the light that she had every day and take that on the court and in life.”

In years past, Melissa was in the stands nearly every game, supporting her daughter loudly and proudly. Her family often joked that her goal was to get on the jumbotron each game.

Now a graduate student on the team, Gracie is playing in Melissa’s memory. There are flashes of pink in her game-day attire, and she wears multiple reminders of her mom each game, from a wristband to her shoes. First, on her wrist, is a bracelet that reads “Team Melissa” made by her uncle for the family. She and her roommate wear them every game. Second, her shoes.

“Something super special to me is that my coaches got me pink Nike KD shoes that are specific toward breast cancer,” Gracie said. “I wear those every day. Every time I look down, she might not be in the stands with me now, but it’s a reminder of how she lived life and how much of a fighter she was.”

On October 27, Duke took the court against NC State for its annual Dig Pink/Breast Cancer Awareness game. The game is always a special one for the Blue Devils, as head coach Jolene Nagel faced breast cancer in the past. But this year there are two new initials on the back of the Duke warm-up jerseys beside the pink ribbon – ‘MJ’ to honor Melissa Johnson.

Gracie chose to share her story to honor her mom and to inspire others. She knows she is not alone in being impacted by breast cancer.

“I’m extremely passionate about sharing my story and maybe connecting with other individuals and continuing to push for more research and advancements in the field.”

Throughout Melissa’s fight, Gracie and her family continually saw the impact of cancer research done in the past, and the need for more research in the future. Gracie is thankful for the additional time she had with her mom while fighting, and attributes that additional time to cancer research. But, as Melissa had a rarer form of breast cancer, the need for more research was ever present.

“Cancer research is vital to Victory Over Cancer. My mom had one of the rarer forms of [breast] cancer, which is significantly less researched. I’m extremely grateful for the progress they’ve made medically to add years to her life, especially at stage IV and how aggressive it was.”

“Victory Over Cancer in the long run would be completely cancer free, no matter what diagnosis you get, stage one, stage four or where it is. But, it’s also adding years to individuals’ lives. My mom had an amazing five years after she was diagnosed. She was able to be present. Those extra years that she had to her life were extremely crucial. I credit that to the treatments and the research that was done. Those are small victories that you can take to the overall victory of being cancer free.”

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