Community helps Dowling fight cancer

August 1, 2018

Even the strongest of people need a pick-me-up now and then.

For Tammy Dowling, there were many pick-me-ups along the way as she battled breast cancer.

Dowling, of Waterloo, has been named the honorary survivor of the 2018 Relay For Life of Rock River, which will be held Friday and Saturday at the Watertown High School track. The event raises funds for the American Cancer Society and recognizes both survivors and those who have lost their battles with cancer, as well as caregivers who have supported them along the way.

In Dowling’s case, a specific honorary caregiver wasn’t named because there were just too many to mention, she said.

“Between work, my husband, the family and friends, I got through it,” she said.

Dowling was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2016. She was at work when she got the call. “I was more or less numb,” she recalled. “My coworker said I went completely white. She thought I was going to pass out.”

Dowling wasn’t a stranger to cancer. It seems to run in her family -- both her parents and her grandfathers died from it, and other relatives are battling or previously battled it. Her mother died of stage 4 lung cancer one week before her wedding to her husband, John.

So, if the doctor was going to have to give her the news, Dowling wanted it right away, even if it meant getting a phone call at work. “This is something we got to get a hold of now, because I’m not letting it take me,” she recalled telling the doctor.

Dowling had a cancer caused by hormones feeding the cancer cells. She said her husband had discovered a knot in her right breast about six months prior, but she had put off going to a doctor about it. When she did call in, it was only a matter of weeks for her to get the full diagnosis. Thankfully, test results showed the cancer was found early.

In November 2016, Dowling had a mastectomy to remove her right breast at Columbus Community Hospital. Four lymph nodes were also removed under the right arm to check if the cancer had spread. Chemotherapy started at the hospital in December of that year and involved Dowling going in for a treatment once every three weeks, for a total of eight rounds of treatment.

Dowling admits she doesn’t go out of her way to make friends, instead focusing her time on her family and children. “I keep to myself a lot, just because of some of the things I’ve been through in the past,” she said. “I have a very select, small handful of friends.”

However, as she was battling cancer, it seemed like Dowling’s community grew bigger and bigger.

Starting in her immediate circle, she described her husband John as always being “emotionally there if I needed him,” even if he was away from home driving truck for his job. Dowling said they stayed in touch by phone daily and he was on speaker phone when Dowling was at the doctor.

Dowling’s two children -- Samantha, 14, and Alex, 12 -- were there for her, too, “trying to keep on their best behavior,” she quipped. It wasn’t easy, though. ”(Samantha) was real uncomfortable with me losing all of my hair (during chemo),” remembered Dowling.

It was a difficult time, too, as the children had only recently lost their grandmother to cancer. “Those two were extremely close to my mother … my kids have a lot to do with doctors and us going to see them.”

Dowling’s brother-in-law, also named John, lives nearby and was a constant presence as well, checking in on Dowling and the children when her husband was gone on the road and bringing his children to play with Samantha and Alex. Because of the low immunity Dowling had due to her chemotherapy treatments, “everybody was trying to be very protective (of me),” she said.

Help came from outside the family circle, too. The Sun Prairie youth bowling league her son Alex is on, for example, paid the fees for Alex to stay on the team so that Dowling didn’t have to pull him out. Parents would ask about Dowling and bring over dishes for her and her family. Teachers at Waterloo Middle School, where Dowling’s children go to school, would send notes or call Dowling to see how she was doing.

Her workplace, Piggly Wiggly in Waterloo, was another source of support. A co-worker of hers, Nancy Schoemann, took Dowling to her chemotherapy appointments when her brother-in-law wasn’t able to. She would stay with Dowling the whole time at the hospital while Dowling was getting the treatment.

“It was so unexpected that she even offered, because we were just co-workers. We really never hung out outside of work,” said Dowling.

Piggly Wiggly customers were concerned, too, asking about Dowling when they didn’t see her at the store. Some, Dowling said, didn’t even go to the store when she wasn’t there. Now that Dowling is back at work, others have come up to her and said she has inspired them, with her rebounding from cancer and her hair growing back.

The store itself helped support Relay For Life’s efforts with a donation and roundup drive for Relay in July.

Dowling had another surgery to put in an expander on her right side, which was followed by an implant surgery earlier this year. She is currently taking a hormonal medication, tamoxifen, to prevent the cancer from coming back.

Dowling said people have come up to her and asked her how she could stay so positive in the midst of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. “I was like, you can do one of two things: you can let it beat you and tear you down, or you look for that gold lining in the black cloud.

“That’s just in life in general … in the big picture, you have to look for the positive, because if you don’t you’re just going to tear yourself down, (and) you’re going to let others tear you down.”

“If it’s worth having, it’s worth fighting for,” she continued. “I want to see my kids graduate high school … that’s one of the things that kept me going.”

Dowling can’t quite explain how going through cancer has changed her, but she does say the experience has helped her to savor what she has. “Before (cancer) I was just living life; I was just doing my thing. Now I try to slow down once in a while, to smell the roses (and) spend some time with my kids.”

And, perhaps, it has given her an outlet to reach out to others who are fighting a similar struggle. “If you got a positive outlook of it, that’s half of your battle,” she told someone. “You got to keep your spirit up because if you just give up, it’s going to take over. It’s going to take you out. You got to want to live, you got to want to fight. Yeah, it’s hard: I got sick quite a few times … It’s something you go through, but half of your battle is how you perceive it.”

Dowling recalled something her father, who died of cancer, taught her. “If you want something, you earn it,” she said. “You work for it, no matter if it’s a piece of candy, a house or the right to breathe. You fight for that. You fight for what you believe in. You stand up for what you believe in.”

“It (cancer) didn’t kill me,” she said, “so I guess I won.”

When she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment, Dowling would draw and color pictures to help her pass the time and keep her mind occupied through the long and sometimes painful days. She said she drew pictures for her children as well as for their friends and her co-workers’ children.

It was her children, and those co-workers, and many more, who helped her get through those days, too.

“It wasn’t just one person,” she said. “It was everybody together.”

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