by Jody Kerzman | Photography: Photos by Jacy
Shiloh Dupper is a radiologic technologist, or rad-tech, at West River Regional Health Services in Hettinger, North Dakota. Hettinger is a small town of around 1,200 people; Shiloh grew up in nearby Bison, South Dakota, population 336. To say Shiloh knows most of her patients outside of the hospital is an understatement.
“When we first moved here it was weird to treat people I grew up with and their parents,” admits Shiloh. “But you get used to it.”
Shiloh always felt lucky to have a job close to where she grew up and close to her family But in March 2016, luck was suddenly not in her family’s favor. It was the beginning of what Shiloh calls two very unlucky years.
“My husband, Travis, was running on the treadmill when he passed out,” she recalls. “We figured he probably just had low blood sugar and it wasn’t anything to worry about but he went to the doctor a couple of days later. The doctor thought he’d had a seizure and wanted to do an MRI just to make sure.
“I do MRIs all the time; I probably scan 200 people a year, people who have headaches or who have passed out. Very rarely do we see anything on those scans so when the doctor wanted an MRI, I didn’t think twice about it.”
At the time, Shiloh was training another rad-tech to do MRIs, so she used her husband’s scan as a teaching moment. It’s a moment Shiloh will never forget.
“I was next to her, looking at the computer screen. I knew right away there was something wrong.”
The MRI showed Travis had a brain tumor. The diagnosis came on a Tuesday and by the following Monday, the family was headed to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to meet with a neuro oncologist and a neurosurgeon. Doctors there confirmed Travis had a brain tumor. They presented the couple with two options: watch it or take it out.
“Travis said, ‘get that sucker out,’” recalls Shiloh with a laugh.
Although the doctors believed the tumor was a low grade, non-aggressive tumor, they removed it 10 days later.
“Thankfully they removed it right away. It turned out to be a much more aggressive tumor than they first thought. Tumors are graded one through four, with a four being really bad. Travis’ tumor was a mix between a three and a four. It would have been a totally different situation if we had waited even six months to get it removed.”
Travis had surgery on a Tuesday and was out of the hospital by Friday. He underwent six weeks of daily radiation treatments and then six months of chemotherapy. He finished chemo on Christmas Eve 2016.
Second Time Unlucky
Shiloh thought the worst was behind her family, and prepared for the healing phase of the cancer diagnosis. But suddenly, the nightmare was starting all over again. This time, it was her son Ethan, who was then 17.
“Ethan was playing soccer in gym class and got knocked out. Doctors said he had a concussion. He struggled with headaches for almost eight weeks. He missed most of the basketball season because of his horrible headaches,” says Shiloh.
In mid-April, more than three months after his concussion, Shiloh noticed Ethan covering his left eye when he stood up from the couch. He confessed his eye often got a little blurry, but would then go back to normal.
“I remember thinking that was weird, but then I just blew it off. A few weeks later, he did it again and also complained that his ear felt weird, like there was water in it. My motherly instinct kicked in then and told me to take him to the doctor, just for peace of mind.”
Shiloh knew the doctor would order an MRI and she didn’t want to be involved in her son’s care. So she scheduled an appointment in Spearfish, South Dakota.
“We left the hospital and by the time we got 10 miles from Spearfish, the doctor’s office called and said Ethan had pretty much the same tumor Travis had.
Breaking the News
“We had stopped to eat at Hardee’s and I went outside for the call. I was in the parking lot crying and trying to talk to the doctor. Travis came outside to check on me and we knew we had to tell Ethan and our other son, Alex,” says Shiloh. “We had to tell him in Hardee’s parking lot ‘you have a brain tumor.’ He took it hard. We all cried. We couldn’t believe we had to do this all over again.”
The news came two days before Ethan’s 18th birthday.
“We went back to Mayo again and saw the same team of doctors that Travis had seen. That was comforting,” says Shiloh. “Ethan’s tumor was in a different part of the brain, but so much about that visit was dejavu. We saw a pediatric neurosurgeon who said the tumor had to come out. So we waited a week and then he had surgery.
“It was surreal. We were in the same waiting room during Ethan’s surgery as I had been during Travis’ surgery. The doctors wanted to get Ethan’s tumor removed immediately, partly because of where we live. Hettinger is pretty much in the middle of nowhere and had something happened, he would have had to be lifeflighted out. It was a better option to have surgery right away.”
That Ethan Kid
Surgery went well and Shiloh says they were prepared for Ethan to experience some difficulty speaking and weakness on his right side. They were the same side effects doctors had warned of when they operated on Travis. While Travis didn’t experience any side effects, Ethan did. He couldn’t speak for several days and it was weeks before he could move his right side. Ethan would spend the next two months in rehab at Mayo.
“Once he started to recover, he recovered quickly. His right side was paralyzed for about five days but once he got to the rehab unit he started making small progressions, from moving his fingertip to opening and closing his hand. Every day he got better and better. The smaller muscle groups starting to move again and than the bigger muscles followed suit.”
Ethan had a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. He quickly became the talk of the rehab center, because of his rapid progression and ‘never give up’ attitude.
“Everyone wanted to know who this ‘Ethan kid’ was on the rehab floor. We would be going down the hallways and doctors would be like, ‘that’s the kid!’ That always put a little smirk on Ethan’s face.
“The physical therapist thought he would leave in a wheelchair or maybe with a crutch. Ethan left rehab on his own two feet after being inpatient for four weeks.”
Rehab continued throughout the summer. While his friends trained for the upcoming football season, Ethan trained as well. He wasn’t able to play football, but he’s back on the basketball court this winter.
“He’s young and he’s athletic. That’s helped his healing,” says Shiloh. “Plus, as an athlete you’re used to training hard and working hard. He never said, ‘I can’t do it.’”
The Family Heals
Ethan still struggles with speech; he sometimes stutters and has trouble finding the correct words and has occasional headaches, but physically, he’s back to his old self.
“He’s got a clean bill of health.”
And for now, there are no signs of tumor regrowth for Travis either. But doctors have told Travis it’s not a matter of if the tumor will return, but rather when. He suffers from daily headaches, but has returned to work and the Dupper family is determined to begin healing from the emotional roller coaster they’ve been riding for nearly two years.
“People ask me how I do it. They ask how I get out of bed in the morning with all that’s happened. I tell them you just do,” says Shiloh. “We have another son who needs our attention and care. We need to make things as normal as we can. I don’t think about it. I have to take care of my family. I’m the mom. Just like every other mom who has other things going on in her life.
“When Travis was diagnosed, I wondered why we were chosen for this journey. But we figured out how to do it in the most positive way we could. It was a little different with Ethan. It was another punch in the gut.”
No One Fights Alone
The people of Hettinger and surrounding towns rallied and Shiloh says the support was overwhelming.
“We had support from not only people in Hettinger, but in our hometowns of Bison and Faith, South Dakota, and from Lemmon, Buffalo, and Dupree, South Dakota. The Bowman, North Dakota student council did a bake sale and donated all the profits to Ethan. We had support from Dickinson as well,” recalls Shiloh. “The people in these small communities have been amazing.”
The Dupper family has done their part to raise awareness about brain cancer. Travis started a Facebook page early in his journey—Travis’s Journey.
“We’ve always been really open about what’s happening with Travis and Ethan,” she explains. “Social media is great for connecting with people in the same situation and it’s nice to find people who have gone through the same thing. When Travis was first diagnosed I felt I was the only wife in the world going through this. I was lonely. I quickly learned I am not the only one and I got over my little pity party and connected with a ton of people around the country that are fighting the same battle.”
The Dupper family was recently recognized for their battles. Julie Fletcher, founder of Pray for Gray and a 10 year brain cancer survivor, asked the Duppers to be honorees at the annual gala last fall.
“She is an inspiration,” says Shiloh. “She started the Pray for Gray foundation that supports families in North Dakota and part of Minnesota who are dealing with a brain cancer diagnosis.”
Pray for Gray is the only North Dakota 501(c)(3) nonprofit brain tumor organization. The organization shares stories of people who have been affected by brain tumors, which helps raise awareness, hope, and money for research. The organization holds a yearly fundraising gala, which includes two or three honorees. Travis and Ethan were honorees at the 2017 gala. The gala includes a silent and live auction. Up for auction last fall was a Carson Wentz package—airfare, hotel, tickets to a Philadelphia Eagles game, and a meet and greet with Carson Wentz. Two businessmen purchased the package and donated it to the Dupper family.
“We felt like we were royalty. We were down on the field for pregame and watched the players warm up. Ethan was in heaven. Football has always been his favorite sport, and after missing his senior season, this was extra great.”
Third Time Lucky
Now, it’s back to reality for the family as they have settled into what they hope will be a “normal” senior year for Ethan. They are enjoying basketball season and Ethan is looking at colleges.
“He wants to go into radiology,” his mom says with pride in her voice. “He became interested first after Travis was diagnosed, and after his own diagnosis, he became even more interested in the field. So I guess if something good can come of all this, it’s that he’s found his passion and his calling.”
Meantime, Shiloh is trying to soak it all in.
“Our younger son Alex is 14. I don’t worry about him getting a brain tumor; though I do worry what kind of toll this has taken on him. He is quiet and doesn’t like to talk much about it, but he is such a great kid and has taken everything that has been thrown at him and has handled it the best a 14 year old can. The doctors say Travis’ and Ethan’s tumors were not related at all genetically. They say we are just a really unlucky family. I have to believe that our luck is changing and that we will start healing and leave all of this in our past. We are just a normal family, trying everyday to be a great family, no matter what challenges are thrown our way.”
There’s an old saying, “third time lucky.” After two unlucky years, Shiloh and her family are holding out for healing and good health in 2018. Afterall, third time lucky.
To see more photos of Shiloh and her family taken by Photos by Jacy, click here.