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Young Loudon family faces Stage IV cancer diagnosis

  • Sarah Dugan (left) carries her daughters Mackenzie (top), 7, and Taylor (bottom), 5, while playing in the family living room after school as Tim Dugan (right) latches from the dinner table on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at their home in Loudon. "That would usually be Dad doing that with them," Tim said.  He recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Sarah Dugan (left) carries her daughters Mackenzie (top), 7, and Taylor (bottom), 5, while playing in the family living room after school as Tim Dugan (right) latches from the dinner table on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at their home in Loudon. "That would usually be Dad doing that with them," Tim said. He recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Tim Dugan (right), 35, pauses while hanging out in the kitchen with his wife Sarah (right) at their home in Loudon on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Tim Dugan (right), 35, pauses while hanging out in the kitchen with his wife Sarah (right) at their home in Loudon on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Taylor Dugan, 5, colors on the kitchen floor while her dad Tim (left) watches on Tuesday, March 25, 2014.  Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Taylor Dugan, 5, colors on the kitchen floor while her dad Tim (left) watches on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Taylor Dugan (left), 5, practices counting with her parents Tim and Sarah while hanging out in the family living room with their cat Max on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 in Loudon. Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Taylor Dugan (left), 5, practices counting with her parents Tim and Sarah while hanging out in the family living room with their cat Max on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 in Loudon. Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Tim Dugan, 35, walks back home after waiting for his daughter Mackenzie (left), 7, to get dropped off by the school bus on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 in Loudon. Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Tim Dugan, 35, walks back home after waiting for his daughter Mackenzie (left), 7, to get dropped off by the school bus on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 in Loudon. Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Sarah Dugan (left) carries her daughters Mackenzie (top), 7, and Taylor (bottom), 5, while playing in the family living room after school as Tim Dugan (right) latches from the dinner table on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at their home in Loudon. "That would usually be Dad doing that with them," Tim said.  He recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Tim Dugan (right), 35, pauses while hanging out in the kitchen with his wife Sarah (right) at their home in Loudon on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Taylor Dugan, 5, colors on the kitchen floor while her dad Tim (left) watches on Tuesday, March 25, 2014.  Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Taylor Dugan (left), 5, practices counting with her parents Tim and Sarah while hanging out in the family living room with their cat Max on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 in Loudon. Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Tim Dugan, 35, walks back home after waiting for his daughter Mackenzie (left), 7, to get dropped off by the school bus on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 in Loudon. Tim recently had cancerous growths removed from around his small intestines and is beginning treatment for cancer. Friends and family are launching a fundraising campaign to help the family with medical costs.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Sarah Dugan of Loudon keeps paperwork related to her husband’s cancer diagnosis tucked in a white binder. A child’s drawing is scrawled across the front.

Its orderly appearance hints at her penchant for organization and a tendency to plan. Those needs have been challenged by a series of events that has unfolded since a trip to the emergency room three weeks ago. That’s when doctors found cancerous growths in Tim’s stomach, marking the first step in what’s already been a whirlwind journey.

In the short time since, doctors have performed surgery to remove the growths and have been working to determine whether the Stage IV cancer has spread to other parts of his body. But like all patients heading into an unknown journey, the questions far outnumber the answers.

“The hardest part is just not knowing,” Sarah said this week.

The news earlier this month was shocking, but Tim, 35, a self-described optimist, cracks a wide smile as he talks about his two young daughters and his return to competitive car racing once he finishes treatment.

“I don’t know how to put it into words. Did I cry about it? Absolutely. Have I cried about it since? Absolutely. But I’m okay with it,” Dugan said. “A lot of that is just being a mentally strong person and just saying this isn’t the end of me. This is just another chapter in my life and another experience I’ll have.”

Yesterday, Tim and Sarah were scheduled to travel to Lebanon, where doctors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center would try to determine whether the Stage IV cancer has spread to his lungs or chest. On April 9, Tim’s chemotherapy will begin at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where he’ll undergo treatment every other week for nine months. “The main focus right now is to stay focused on staying healthy and staying positive,” Tim said. “Then it’s probably the battle of chemo. That’s the next chapter in my life.”

Sign of trouble

The stomach pain started six or seven months ago, when eating and drinking became excruciating. Specialists said it might be an overgrowth of bacteria in Tim’s stomach or problems with his colon. It might also have been Barrett’s esophagus disorder, which Tim was diagnosed with in 2009. The pain continued until March 9, a Sunday night, when he decided it was unbearable. At Sarah’s urging, they drove to the emergency room at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. “For me to say yes to (the emergency room), she knew it was bad,” Tim said.

Doctors conducted a series of blood tests and X-rays, and the early results came back negative. “At that point I’m lying in the emergency room thinking, ‘Is this the onset of mad hysteria? Am I going crazy? Is there really nothing wrong with me?’ ” he said.

Soon after, he noticed a doctor holding a laptop walking down the hallway, in his direction. Before she entered the room, the doctor stopped several times to look down at the laptop. Then she shared the news: Tim had a tumor encasing his small intestine, and he needed surgery to remove it. “She couldn’t tell whether it was cancer, but it was more than likely where the pain was coming from,” Tim said. “I was excited that they knew what it was. At the same time, it’s like, ‘This isn’t good. I know it’s not good.’ ”

Surgery

Three days later, Tim, Sarah and a group of friends and relatives made the trip up Route 89 to Dartmouth-Hitchcock for Tim’s surgery. The Dugans had the same thought: Doctors would get in, remove the mass and Tim would be healed in no time. By late April, he would be in New Jersey racing cars with the Sports Car Club of America. Sarah sent friends a photo of Tim giving a thumbs-up before surgery, and promised to keep them updated. Before the procedure, Sarah talked with the lead surgeon, who said he probably couldn’t speak with her until afterward.

“He told me that if I saw him come out early in the surgery, it is not a good sign,” she said.

One hour into a five-hour surgery, Sarah was flipping through a magazine when her pager buzzed.

It was the surgeon.

“I said, ‘Oh no,’ and grabbed my bag. I knew it wasn’t good,” she said. “The surgeon came out and ended up basically blurting out that Tim has cancer, it’s Stage IV, and he has to get back in there and do everything he can to get it out of there.” She spent the next three hours sharing the news with friends.

“That is a feeling I never ever want to experience again. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” she said. “Everything was racing through my mind. How am I going to explain this to Tim? How are we going to tell our girls? What are we going to do?” she said.

The cancer had metastasized and spread beyond the mass on his intestine, but doctors said the surgery successfully removed all cancerous growths from the stomach.

“Right now, it’s just waiting for some sort of treatment plan to figure out what’s going to happen for the next six or eight months,” he said.

The reaction

Tim came home March 15, surprising Mackenzie, 7, and Taylor, 5, with an early return.

The girls are familiar with sickness. A year ago, a schoolmate lost their mother to breast cancer, and a Dugan family friend recently underwent chemotherapy. “It’s not something that’s going to be completely foreign to them,” Sarah said.

Sarah and Tim explained he was sick with cancer and he would need medicine. That medicine – chemotherapy – might make him sick and cause him to lose his hair. They reminded the girls that not all cancer is deadly, and that dad was going to be okay. “It was a weird conversation. For one, she doesn’t understand it. It’s not like you and I sitting here and having a conversation, and I say I have Stage IV cancer,” Tim said.

Since the diagnosis, Tim has stayed home full time, while keeping the household routine normal. On Sarah’s work days, the girls’ grandmothers help Mackenzie and Taylor get ready for school. The evening homework schedule hasn’t changed, and Tim still drives them to horseback riding and dance classes.

Mackenzie said she likes having dad at home more often. “He’s not strong right now. But he is strong, and he’s going to get stronger,” she said.

When asked how they plan to help their dad get stronger, Taylor doesn’t hesitate: “By doing whatever he wants.”

The bills

Before co-pays and hospital bills even started rolling in, the Dugans heard that friends had organized an online fundraiser to help the family with costs related to his treatment.

At Unitil, where Tim works, word of his surgery spread quickly, and people were looking for ways to donate. “I think it just goes to show you that these are good people. The guy always has a smile on his face,” said Nicole Ash, who organized the online fundraiser. “Any situation, he can turn around and make it something positive. I think that’s really what people see.”

In its first 24 hours, the site had raised $5,000. As of yesterday, $8,700 had been raised to help offset Tim’s medical bills. Sarah and Tim cried for more than an hour after someone told them about the fundraiser. “It’s not the diagnosis. It’s not what he has that brings us to tears. It’s the outpouring of love and support,” she said.

Tim said he has medical insurance through work, but he hasn’t looked at what is covered, since most of the decisions related to his health won’t be discretionary. Tim said he plans to donate any leftover money to cancer-related charities or research.

The support has floored the Dugans.

“Somewhere down the line I guess I’ve done good for people. I’ve always done favors for people and never asked anything in return. I guess this is how people are paying me back,” he said with a smile.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)

For info on the fundraiser, contact T. Gatherum at gatherumt@msn.com

Best wishes to Tim for a full recovery, and to the Dugan family to get through this harrowing time.

Here's the link to the fundraiser - https://www.sharingcounts.com/campaigns/279-the-dugan-family-fundraiser

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