The moving story of cancer survivor Sheila Marie Johnson is depicted in BET+’s drama film, ‘God’s Grace: The Sheila Johnson Story.’ Helmed by Charmin Lee, this biopic stars Demetria McKinney in the lead, with support from Michael Beach, Deja Dee and Amber Reign Smith. The film revolves around Sheila, a dedicated military personnel, who finds out in her early 40s that she has Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
Instead of falling apart, Sheila decides to use this setback to help more people like her. She forms an advocacy group to help women and men fight the disease. With the recurrent themes of battling a life-threatening disease, the importance of hope and support, and the need to spread awareness to get timely treatment, this film is all about finding the right inspiration.
Sheila Johnson’s Heroic Journey
Charmin Lee worked closely with the real Sheila on this project, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2009 and had to leave the Air Force in 2010 due to her condition. Sheila was told she had around 3-5 years to live, but she decided very early on that she would not let a body part determine how long she gets to live and chose to fight the disease. Sheila is very excited about McKinney playing her in the movie since she feels like the actor has been able to capture her true essence and do complete justice to the role.
One of my highlights of the conference is seeing my Partner in Health Dr Cynthia Ma. My fab onc. Attending the Metastatic Breast Cancer Research Conference always give me hope. Advocates and researchers gathering together as we learn from each other. #bcsm @MetastaticOdds pic.twitter.com/sm3Z0IHrxs
— swaggsheila (@swaggsheila1) August 31, 2023
Lee discussed how exciting it was to tell Sheila’s story to serve as an inspiration for Black women and men, in an interview with ‘Good Day Atlanta.’ Sheila, also the founder of SWAGG (Survivor With a Good God), feels that her approach towards the disease and her journey thereon have been adequately portrayed in the film. Lee, too, hopes that this film will make women understand the need to get screened early on so they can get access to the right treatment and understand their options. Sheila herself has made it her mission to help people struggling with the disease like her with correct information about treatment methods. SWAGG has also been portrayed with the same name in the film, with Sheila’s character becoming the voice to spread the message.
Sheila has also discussed her journey in her autobiography, ‘A Survivor’s Lens: A Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor’s Focus on Faith and God’s Word,’ published in 2022. Finding out about this disease was especially hard on Sheila since she had lost her mother to it in 2004. It took some time for her to accept it since her experience with her mother indicated that it might be a losing battle. But Sheila, a mother of one, decided to be strong and fight it, especially in front of her daughter and her father.
It’s treatment Monday. I’m on my gazillion million treatment. Same oncologist, same cancer center and always on Monday’s for 13 years. Sometimes I gotta pat myself on the back & thank my body for fighting. Still can’t get use to needles and being poked in my port. 🙋🏽♀️🙋🏽♀️ #bcsm pic.twitter.com/1Q947cE9MB
— swaggsheila (@swaggsheila1) May 22, 2023
The next step was treatment, clinical trials, and developing an understanding of what can be done. She started chemotherapy, and when the time came, she even got a mastectomy done since she was clear she didn’t want the body part responsible for a deadly disease on her. But for her, it wasn’t just the treatment but also the lack of awareness and misinformation. Sheila claims that she never saw a Black woman in an advertisement for breast cancer, which led her to assume certain things about this disease. She has also discussed the underrepresentation of Black women when it comes to health in real life and through events portrayed in the film. She is grateful for the support of her family and friends, but always felt like she needed to talk to someone in her condition with an understanding of how to live with the disease.
This is why her shift to Illinois was hard since she couldn’t initially find any support group to help her through it. This was when she decided to use her platform and her voice to start an advocacy group to help people in a similar position. She wanted Black women and men fighting the disease to be adequately informed about correct steps, treatment methods and most importantly, the inspiration and strength to fight something huge that has happened to them. By sharing her journey, Sheila wants people to understand that cancer doesn’t have to mean the end of everything, and there’s still hope for people everywhere. Ultimately, Lee took the responsibility of doing justice to Sheila’s story on screen, with Sheila herself present on the sets a few times to get an idea of how the story was progressing.
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