“You have six months to live.”
And, so it began ... Mary Ellen Dugosh’s nine-year cancer journey — one filled with hysterics, anxiety, loss of faith, anger, pain, disbelief, mental illness, stress and fatigue — but followed by a renewed faith in God, hope, humor, strength, a positive attitude, acceptance and the “nine most beautiful years with a great quality of life.”
This is Dugosh’s story in her own words. She detailed her journey while currently in hospice in her home in Tiskilwa.
“It was around Dec. 28 in 2007 when I experienced my first symptom. My husband, Barry, was taking down decorations from the fireplace with our granddaughters, Olivia and Nora. When they kept passing me, I had spot vision and didn’t have full vision to see them but had no pain,” she said.
Her daughter, Kate, was home from Carthage College, and she and Barry rushed her to Perry Memorial Hospital (PMH) in Princeton.
After two days at PMH, she was sent to see a neurologist at Methodist Hospital in Peoria who ruled out multiple sclerosis but confirmed TIAs and ordered more tests. Her family doctor ordered a CA125.
A CA125 test can measure the levels of protein in a woman’s blood; high levels could be a sign of ovarian cancer. It’s a tumor marker and the only positive way to detect ovarian cancer. A pap smear doesn’t detect this cancer.
“On the nastiest, yuckiest day there could ever be, I received a call from my doctor who said that Barry and I and the kids needed to come and see him. He wouldn’t tell me anything over the phone,” Dugosh said.
After having the CA125 test, Dugosh said she knew in her heart she had ovarian cancer. Her diagnosis was peritoneal cancer and Stage 3 ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer forms in an ovary. It results in abnormal cells that have the ability to invade or spread to other parts of the body. It’s been called the “silent killer” because symptoms are non-specific and difficult to diagnose. They include bloating, pelvic or back pain, abdominal swelling, trouble with bladder and bowels, and loss of appetite.
“When I was told I had ovarian cancer, I went into hysterics, blamed the doctor, blamed the universe and especially blamed God. I told God I could have given him a list of people to take instead of me,” Dugosh remembered.
Her first surgery was Feb. 28, 2008, at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City. It was a peritoneal “de bulking” — vacuuming of the ovarian lining along with the surgical removal of 50 pounds of tumors.
Dugosh went through six, eight-hour chemotherapy infusions of Taxel and Carboplatin, two of the most difficult chemotherapy drugs prescribed. She continued the same regimen of future infusions with the Illinois Cancer Center of Peoria at PMH
“Chemo is a battle. It takes a lot of support from family and friends and divine intervention to be able to survive it,” she said.
Dugosh went back and forth to Iowa City for a year for follow up treatments and check ups.
“After a year, the doctor told Barry and our children, Greg, Kelly and Kate, that they should take me home and make final plans to prepare for the end,” she said.
Mary Ellen was told she was going to die.
“I got as far as the Quad Cities and started yelling and said, “Hell no! Hell no! It’s not going to happen,” she said emphatically.
Dugosh had an overwhelming feeling she needed to call her niece, Dorth Phillips, in Colorado.
“I called and told her what had happened, and she told me to hang up the phone, and she would get back to me. Dorth said she wanted to talk to her husband who had a boyhood friend from Texas, Bill Buckley, whose wife had the same kind of cancer that I had,” she said.
Dugosh was told to fax all of her medical records from Iowa, and it was hand-delivered to Dr. Charles Levenback who specializes in gynecologic oncology and reproductive medicine at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Treatment Center in Houston, Texas.
“Barry and I didn’t know how we could afford to make these trips to Texas, but God set paths in front of us to meet those needs,” she said.
Dugosh also explained when she traveled to Texas, she and a family member could stay at Rotary House International, a five-star hotel with wonderful restaurants. It is owned by M.D. Anderson and managed by Marriott International; it is in close proximity to the center and affordable.
The first trip to Texas was the beginning of four trips a year for eight years. She finally met Dr. Levenback who she fondly refers to as Dr. L. And Dugosh firmly believes he and the cancer center’s intervention were reasons why she managed to live a quality of life for so many years.
“He used me as a guinea pig because there was nothing normal about my case,” she said, “and even felt my case was something of a miracle.”
And during this time, Dugosh was also finding her faith back in God which had even grown stronger.
“I can’t give you a time or a date or place it began to happen ... it happened slowly. I kept feeling God’s presence,” she said.
During her cancer journey, she also faced serious mental issues.
“Dr. L was looking for a fast cure of some kind and came across an estrogen blocker that worked well for breast cancer patients and asked me if I would be willing to try it,” she said.
“Even though I had gone through menopause and had a complete hysterectomy, I felt like I was going through menopause again. I thought I was losing my mind and felt absolutely insane.”
Dugosh was given Prozac which she described as “God’s wonderful little pill,” and she continued to lead a quality of life.
However two years ago during a regular trip to Texas, more tumors were found.
From that point in time, Dugosh began seeing a gradual decline in her health. Additional tumors were found, and she began experiencing pain. Her only avenue of help was more chemo treatments which once again caused hair loss, nausea and bad side effects.
And then in October 2016, another medical emergency almost caused her to die.
“I was taken to Perry Memorial Hospital in horrific pain ...I had a bowel obstruction from scar tissue. My family gathered together thinking I wasn’t going to live through that ordeal, but lo and behold, I walked away from that too,” she smiled and said.
She made one final trip to Houston several weeks ago hoping to find a miracle drug, but there was none to be found. She said her good-byes to Dr. L, and because she became very ill in Houston, she knew it was time to seek hospice help even though she struggled with that decision.
Dugosh feels this journey has made her family closer, and she also feels being Nanni to her 10 grandchildren is her greatest legacy.
One of Dugosh’s goals was to celebrate her 30th wedding anniversary with her husband, Barry, on St. Patrick’s Day. She lovingly talked about her “pharmacist.”
“I don’t know how I could have made this journey without him ... He’s been there for me every step of the way, and I call him my pharmacist. He keeps my pills and medical records straight, and he just keeps everything going in his own quiet manner,” she said.
Dugosh was passionate about educating women about ovarian cancer and spoke at various venues; she was a guest speaker for the Bureau Country Relay for Life in 2011. And, she pointed out the next Relay for Life will be held on Aug. 5 at Zearing Park and she “hopes to be there.”
“I always believed I was going to survive my cancer. I am so grateful that so many people have prayed for me for so long. My prayer is that my clinical study at the cancer treatment center will help women who face ovarian cancer and that some day there will be a cure,” Dugosh said.
“I’m not living in fear or desperation. It’s going to happen,” Dugosh said, “and I am at peace with it.”