Throughout May, the Fulton Sun has been highlighting local cancer survivors and caregivers ahead of the annual Relay for Life of Callaway County event, which is being held virtually this year. The third installment of the series focuses on local survivor Karen Dungan.
In early May 2018, Karen Dungan went for her first mammogram in years.
When she was in her 20s, Dungan's grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and died after a bout of pneumonia. Because of this, her mother has mammograms religiously. Dungan started having mammograms in her 40s, but by the time she was 50, she'd fallen out of practice. Her doctor insisted she start again.
"I was there by myself — I had just gone there to do a routine test," she said.
But what the screening discovered was not routine. After more appointments and tests, Dungan was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.
"I hadn't felt anything — even after they told me, I didn't really know," Dungan said. "I couldn't feel anything different."
After a surgery in July, she began traveling back and forth to Columbia for chemotherapy appointments every two weeks in August. Dungan was shocked at how many people were undergoing treatment at the same time.
"The chemo room was filled basically every time I went in there," Dungan.
Her parents, who live in Alabama, visited for one of those first treatments.
Not long after her mother got back home, she called Dungan with grim news — she too had been diagnosed with cancer. As both underwent treatment, mother and daughter commiserated together.
"That was sad and shocking and seems not fair," Dungan said. "It's kind of a weird shared experience to have, but I'm glad we're both on the other side of it."
By October, Dungan had retired from her job and was going to chemotherapy appointments every week. The treatments weren't as bad as she originally feared, but each hospital trip lasted hours, and she hated the needles.
Some days, she just felt like crying, so she did. She was always tired and found food lost its taste.
"Eating was terrible," Dungan said. "Everything tastes like metal."
Throughout it all, Dungan said she tried to keep life as normal as possible. Her two oldest children, Joel, 25, and Sydney, 21, had already left home, but her youngest, Eyla, 17, was still at home. Dungan tried to go to as many of Eyla's volleyball games as she could and got up in the mornings to drive her to school.
"I didn't feel like it was going to be productive for me to just sit around and feel sorry for myself," Dungan said.
During a family trip to Silver Dollar City in Branson, Dungan came down with pneumonia. What was supposed to be a quick trip turned into a four-day hospital stay.
"I think the pneumonia might have been worse than anything else I had," she said.
When she finished with chemotherapy in December, Dungan still had weeks of radiation before she finally beat the cancer.
In 2019, she began attending LiveSTRONG classes, which are for adult cancer survivors, at the Jefferson City Area YMCA. Dungan feels she benefited from being around people who understood what she was going through.
"It's been almost two years since I had surgery," Dungan said. "I'm feeling a little bit better, you just always have that in the back of your head. It's not ever something you're just gonna forget about."
She doesn't know if it will ever truly feel over — there's always a chance the cancer could come back. That worries Dungan.
"I don't know, it's just something that's going to be there all the time," Dungan said.
Dungan's only 52. She has a lot future to plan for and is hoping to find her way back in to another full-time job. To others, Dungan recommends prevention and vigilance.
"Make sure you get your screenings like you're supposed to, not like I lapsed there for a little bit," Dungan said. "I'm not sure the outcome would have been any different, but if I hadn't gone, it could have been a lot worse."
The American Cancer Society is holding a virtual week-long fundraising event beginning June 7 in the place of a traditional Relay for Life. Donations to Relay for Life can be made at bit.ly/367hVg0.