BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — Cruising down the St. Joseph River, Dionne Bowers is quick to point out a brown brick building that sits high above the water.
“That was my view for seven months,” Bowers said of the building.
It was a view she had once come to, to find peace. During her high school days at Benton Harbor, Bowers would sit on a bench with her nephew and dream about one day owning her own boat. But just days before she was set to leave to go play college basketball, Bowers found herself in that brown brick building, Lakeland Hospital.
“I started having really bad chest pains and I went to the emergency room two weeks before I was supposed to go to college,” Bowers said. “They diagnosed me with a chest infection and a UTI, and they sent me home.”
Bowers had been in and out of doctors’ offices knowing that something wasn’t right but none could ever pin point a problem. This time, the results were different.
“The very next day, I remember my mother telling me that she had got a call from the emergency room and that I needed to contact them,” Bowers remembers. “They saw what they thought was a tumor and told me that I needed to check myself into the hospital.
“They ended up performing an emergency surgery that Monday. And that’s when they discovered that I had, what they thought was a tumor was actually my ovary, full of fluids. That ended up being teratoma ovarian cancer.”
She had her right ovary and tube removed and her left, her doctor said, was so severely damaged that she would never have kids. At 18, that was an emotional reality to grasp. But Bowers’ toughest days were still ahead. After an overdose of chemotherapy and an infection she caught from surgery, she spent the next seven months in the hospital. Some of those days, doctors told her family, she may not make it through the night.
“I was clinging onto life, at 18, 19 years old. I just remember the nurses having a birthday party for me in the ICU on my 19th birthday. And I remember begging God for another chance. And to have experienced that, to the memory of seeing my family look at me through the ICU glass,” Bowers said. “I would have never expected to be here, but I’m here and I won’t be denied.”
Nearly 30 years later, she is making sure that others know she is here. Others who have fought a similar battle. Others who have watched a loved one go through what she went through. She is here, as the executive director of the Michigan Ovarian Cancer Alliance.
“MIOCA’s mission aligns with me personally. When I ran across this organization, I was like, I’m in. I was so excited. I knew this was my position when I saw the posting,” Bowers said. “I know that I’m passionate about it. As a survivor, I’m committed to the work.”
MIOCA’s mission is to “save lives by promoting the early detection of ovarian cancer and improved treatment outcomes. MIOCA raises awareness of ovarian cancer, provides resources and support to survivors and their families, advocates both locally and federally, educates Michigan communities, and funds innovative ovarian cancer research.”
According to its website, ovarian cancer is the leading cause of gynecologic cancer deaths and every 23 minutes a woman is diagnosed with it. Since the symptoms are common, bloating, difficulty eating, pelvic/abdominal pain, or urinary frequency, and because there’s no early detection test for it, most cases are not discovered until the late stages.
“It’s a silent killer of women. But if it’s taking women’s lives and every 23 minutes a woman’s diagnosed with ovarian cancer, that’s not silent and we can’t stand in silence any longer,” Bowers said. “How do we connect generations? Because it’s not an old white woman disease that people may think. This happens in black and brown communities just as much. But the issue is there’s not testing for it. So oftentimes that health disparity is even greater because there is no testing that detects ovarian cancer in one test.”
The nonprofit is a resource that Bowers wishes she had when she was struggling with her diagnosis and in the months and years that followed. She attended cancer support groups but says most of the time she was the only ovarian cancer survivor and she was always the youngest.
“There’s so many different parts of MIOCA that is needed in today’s society because we’re, you know, we are aligning our research and outreach and advocacy towards every community,” Bowers said about the opportunity to expand across Michigan. “We’re just really trying to increase awareness across the state so that no person born with the ovaries will have to deal with what I had to deal with.”
It’s a mission that has taken her career and life full circle. As she sits at the helm of her boat, pointing to Lakeland Hospital on the bluff, her 9-year-old daughter looks up towards the windows where her mom was told she’d never be possible.
“My best friend kept telling me that I was pregnant and I’m like, ‘you know, I can’t have kids, girl, you tripping.’ And she just kept, she kept pressuring me to take a pregnancy test. And so I did it to kind of humor her. So, I thought, like, the place was in cahoots with her. Like, I honestly, I just, I still was in disbelief,” Bowers said as tears began to well in her eyes. “It wasn’t until I heard Destiny’s heartbeat, it really did something to me.”
Now as a mother, an executive and a survivor, Bowers is using her story and MIOCA’s mission to change the story of the thousands of women like her and shape a future of hope for young women like her daughter.
“I am truly blessed, not only to be a survivor, not only to be a college, first-generation college graduate, not only to be a mother or executive leader,” Bowers said. “I am blessed to be all of those things in one.”
Join MIOCA in its mission to paint Michigan teal, the color of ovarian cancer, at the Shake Your Teal Feathers event, Sunday, Aug. 21 at Millennium Park in Grand Rapids. The 10th annual event joins the ovarian cancer community with neighbors and the medical community for a fun 5k or 10-mile fun run and a teal car parade to raise awareness and funds for MIOCA.