October 21, 2013

Walton woman beats cancer four times

Tammy Dowell credits support, attitude with beating cancer four times

by Mitchell Kirk

WALTON — Tammy Dowell beat cancer four times.

As a 30-year-old in 2001, she decided to get the lump she noticed on her left breast checked by a doctor. Because of her age and absence of family history with cancer, the doctor told her not to worry.

Six months later, she saw a different doctor, who gave her similar advice.

Then came a third doctor, who recommended tests.

“That needs to come out,” she recalled the doctor telling her.

The tests came back showing that the lump was cancerous. Dowell spent the following year seeing various specialists, a process that would become a small fraction of what her experience with the disease would become. She credits her family and friends’ support and her positive attitude with getting her through a battle that would span about 10 years and four parts of her body, never forcing her to call in sick to work and turning her into a more open-minded person.

Upon receiving the news, she said the only thing going through her mind was her two sons — Dylan, who at the time was 6, and Andrew, who at the time was 3.

“Buy me 10 more years,” she recalled thinking. “I just need a few more years.”

She didn’t take out any frustration on the previous doctors, saying they didn’t mean her any harm, relying on her age and lack of family history with cancer.

“Now, people are getting diagnosed so young, it’s not uncommon for people,” she said.

She was more concerned with how to get better.

And get better she did, at first anyway.

An aggressive treatment schedule began in 2002, including chemotherapy and several medications.

The port in her chest used to administer the medications was removed in 2004 after she was cancer-free for two years.

A year later, tests came back showing the cancer had turned up in the upper left lobe of her left lung. The portion was surgically removed and she started a medication regimen to prevent the cancer from spreading yet again.

But spread it did. In 2007, she discovered it had taken hold of her entire right lung.

Dowell then sought treatment at the Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis, where she was treated with experimental medications for the next few years. These cleared her lung and rendered her cancer-free until 2011, when she found it had spread for a fourth time — to the lymph chain in her chest.

Dowell said the biggest challenge throughout it all weren’t the treatments themselves, but scheduling them around her growing sons’ schedules.

In fact, she said other than being off for surgeries, she never had to call in sick to her job as a nurse on the medical/surgical floor at Logansport Memorial Hospital.

“I never have that feeling of gloom and doom — ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to die,’” she said, adding that she was more concerned with how her family would get on without her if the cancer ever became unbeatable, as her job provides insurance benefits for the family.

It was the family she longed to live for, along with many friends, who helped her get through it, she said.

Dowell lost her mother to multiple sclerosis when she was a child. Her father, John Grant, and her stepmother, Vicci Grant, flew up from Florida to be by her side for every cancer treatment.

“They spent lots and lots of time sitting beside me in a chemo chair,” she said.

Dowell spoke of the strength she received from her husband, Don Dowell, sister, Tina Klepinger, and her brother, Rick Grant, smiling as she flipped through a stack of photos he took of himself depicting in successive order shaving his head to support her through her own hair loss during chemotherapy.

When reflecting on how the experience changed her, Dowell describes a positive transformation.

“I used to be very one sided,” she said. “My way or the highway. When I got sick, when you have to think about the what-ifs, I learned not to sweat the small stuff. There are things that are important and things you have to leave at the door.”

For people engaged in a similar battle, she emphasized the importance of seeking out good doctors and to not be too dismayed by the side effects of many cancer treatments, saying she didn’t lose any hair or experience any nausea the last few times she went through chemotherapy.

“Chemo isn’t what it used to be,” she said.

Dowell got the 10 years she silently asked for upon hearing the daunting news at the start of it all. In a routine she calls living “one CT scan at at time,” she happily says she has remained cancer free since beating the bout that turned up in her lymph chain in 2011 and is looking forward to many more decades to come.

Mitchell Kirk is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5130 or Follow him: @PharosMAK