Travel Agent's Pink Issue: Mary Jo Dopson on Sharing Is Caring

Mary Jo Dopson of Gateway Travel & Cruise advises women battling breast cancer to “Get to know [your] medical team, and keep in great communication with them always.”
Mary Jo Dopson of Gateway Travel & Cruise advises women battling breast cancer to “Get to know medical team, and keep in great communication with them always.”

This October 15 will mark 18 years since Mary Jo Dopson was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Fortunately, that fateful day is way in the past for her as she continues to thrive and live a very flourishing life today.

“I’m doing very, very well,” the advisor with Gateway Travel & Cruise in Clinton, Iowa, tells Travel Agent magazine. “Many prayers were answered. Each day is a blessing that I appreciate!”

Dopson’s positive attitude is absolutely contagious and it clearly comes from a lifetime of optimism. She loves her hometown of Clinton on the Mississippi River; that’s where she was born and continues to live to this day. She has been married to Steve Dopson for 32 years, and her twin sister, Marla, works for Mayflower Tours; she also has an older brother and sister. Mary Jo and Steve have two grown sons, Brandon is married and living in San Francisco and Benjamin still lives and works in the Clinton area.

It’s a great adult life that started off on a high note. Just out of high school she won the Miss Clinton County beauty pageant, which rewarded her with a generous college scholarship. For the next three years Dopson participated in pageants with the Miss America affiliate, always ending up in the top 10 at the Miss Iowa pageant. In her final effort, she was the preliminary talent winner (she’s a drummer!) and first runner-up.

Dopson’s journey with breast cancer had begun in 1997 when she was 36. She was at Marla’s house putting curlers in her hair (Marla had also been a successful beauty queen contestant over the years, and the two women had gotten together to watch a local competition).

“I’m not a ‘why me?’ person at all. I knew that these were the cards dealt to me and how I played them was more important.”

“I noticed an egg-shaped-looking lump coming out of my arm pit,” recalls Dopson of that weekend. Although she wasn’t too worried about it at the time, she did go to a doctor to have it looked at. Several weeks later, she had surgery to have it extracted. Still, she wasn’t all that alarmed.

“I was so positive that nothing was wrong, that I went to get the results alone. It was October 15, 1997, right smack in the middle of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I was diagnosed with what would become Stage 3 breast cancer,” she says.

It was a hard blow for Dopson, who has always considered herself a “plan-it” person. (Case in point: In 1983, she had laid out a fabulous track for virtually the rest of her life: She’d graduated from college, gotten married and started her job at Gateway Travel.)

Her immediate thoughts on being diagnosed were, “I’m 36 years young. Our boys are nine and 11, and I don’t have a plan.”

She didn’t have to worry for too long, however, as her loving family and friends immediately stepped in to assist with her children, her appointments, surgeries, hospital stays, meals and housework. Dopson’s treatment plan was chemotherapy, surgery, more chemotherapy and finally radiation — all followed by a prescription for Tamoxifen over the next five years. Dopson’s chances of survival as she recovered were 50-50 over the next five years.

What was life like for her during this challenging time? It was no pity party, that’s for sure.

“I’m not a ‘why me?’ person at all,” says Dopson. “I knew that these were the cards dealt to me and how I played them was more important.”

Her goal was to keep her home life as normal as possible; she vowed to keep positive and smiling.

“Each day I would get up, put on my wig, draw in some eyebrows and help get the boys ready for school. Flowers are great medicine and many were delivered to our home. We had a running joke taken from a funny book I had read: ‘Not now, I’m having a no hair day.’ When one of the boys answered the door to find flowers, they’d pick them up and yell, ‘Mom, more flowers for your breast!’ Humor is good,” she says.

An initial concern for Dopson upon being diagnosed had been her ability to keep up her earnings at Gateway Travel; she’d been working on a commission-only basis for many years. That challenge was alleviated by the fact that she continued working as much as possible during her recovery.

“I certainly didn’t want to stay home and ponder my health,” she recalls. “I not only love what I do, but it gave me something else to think about.” Best part? “I had such wonderful customers checking in on me and helping me stay positive. They all made me smile.”

“We had a running joke: ‘Not now, I’m having a no hair day.’ When one of the boys answered the door to find flowers, they’d pick them up and yell, ‘Mom, more flowers for your breast!’ Humor is good.”

Life fell into place as Dopson and her support system got her chemotherapy appointments down to a science. She opted to have them on Friday afternoons so she could rest all weekend. “By Sunday night, I felt better, but ripped off because I didn’t really have a weekend, so I usually took Mondays off and came back to work on Tuesdays. If I didn’t feel well or was tired, I knew I could go home early or even just break away for several hours. That was a relief I’m so grateful for. I can’t imagine not having this freedom,” says Dopson.

Throughout, Dopson ensured her boys had their mother’s care as she went through recovery, even when the chemo was getting her down and her immune system was hitting some pretty low levels. One day, her youngest came home from school feeling ill. It turned out he had to be hospitalized for pneumonia. Dopson stayed with him there for two days, even as she fought off the effects of a new chemotherapy that was giving her a tough time. Eventually, the hospital had to find a room for her, as well, as she struggled to get through, but one thought ran through her mind at this time: “I’m Mom. I have to be there with my sick child. I’d never have it any other way.”

The Birth of an Inspirational Speaker

Not surprisingly, Dopson has used her extremely vivacious and positive attitude over the past two decades to speak to groups and organizations about surviving breast cancer (and cancer in general), an inspirational activity she truly enjoys.

That facet of her life began shortly after she entered her recovery period, when she was asked to speak to a local club. When she picked up the phone, Dopson, who had been a travel agent since 1983, had assumed the caller wanted her to talk to her about travel, but instead the request was to speak about surviving breast cancer.

“And so began the many years of speaking to groups and organizations [teens, too, in conjunction with the American Cancer Society] about my journey,” says Dopson. “We also started hosting buses from Gateway Travel to the Komen Quad Cities Race for the Cure each June. The Quad Cities Race for the Cure is just a short 40-minute bus ride away and that’s how ‘Bus Buddies’ was born. We visited several years with a bus full of love to participate. I was selected their honorary chairperson in 1999 and represented our state at the Washington, DC, race, too.”

Back – With a Future

She knew her survival story had reached full cycle when two years ago she was asked by a cancer support group to come talk about traveling.

“There were those I didn’t know, those who were customers, friends of friends and, of course, my wonderful family at my side, always praying, supporting, loving and caring for every step of surgeries, chemo and radiation.”

“This is a new twist!” Dopson tells us. “I had done one or the other, but not ever together.” Her talks to this group concentrate on traveling with cancer, including such topics as obtaining trip insurance and traveling with medications. But it’s all very inspirational as well. “There are glimmers of hope that travel could still be in their future,” she says.

Dopson is fully enthusiastic about her own future as well. She loves working for Gateway Travel, which she has done for more than 30 years. And, having served as the agency’s manager for many of those years, she recently returned to being a travel consultant after the agency, which is now in its 70th year, got new owners.

“I’m back to doing what I love!” she says of selling travel.

And, of course, her own love of travel keeps her globetrotting. She’s been to Europe seven times and countless times to the Caribbean and Mexico. Her church parish has a sister parish in Peru and so Dopson has visited Machu Picchu twice. Looking ahead, “I love Quebec and I have a goal to visit Costa Rica, enjoy a European river cruise and get to Alaska...finally!” she tells Travel Agent.

A Survivor’s Words of Wisdom

Dopson’s message to other women is simple: “There are many advancements in finding breast cancer sooner than ever before, and sooner is the key. I don’t believe there is any magic age that you should begin breast examinations, so start knowing your body now.”

“There are many advancements in finding breast cancer sooner than ever before, and sooner is the key. I don’t believe there is any magic age that you should begin breast examinations, so start knowing your body now.”

For those who have received a diagnosis of breast cancer, Dopson advises “not hanging out on the Internet too much” looking up information. “It’s natural to want to know more, but don’t let it consume you. It’s exhausting and scary. Get to know your new best friends, your medical team, and keep in great communication with them always.”

Now able to look back at her battle with breast cancer with great perspective, Dopson says, “I’ve always thought of my life as chapters in a book, and certainly with this diagnosis, I wanted to skip this new chapter completely. But as all of life has its reasons, I eventually saw so much good in people! There were those I didn’t know, those who were customers, friends of friends and, of course, my wonderful family at my side, always praying, supporting, loving and caring for every step of surgeries, chemo and radiation.”

That great platform has given her the ability to pay it forward, and Dopson’s message to women who may be facing the challenge of breast cancer is a simple welcoming greeting of hope:

“I say to them: ‘Welcome, sister. You are loved and you are not alone.’” 

Donate to the American Cancer Society

Part of the proceeds from the designated “Pink Issue” ads in this edition of Travel Agent magazine will go to the charity of Mary Jo Dopson’s choice. She has requested that these proceeds go to the American Cancer Society, specifically on behalf of her sister-in-law, Julie Dopson, who passed away this year from cancer.

Mary Jo’s family is running on behalf of Julie in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon this October 11. Those of you who would also like to contribute to “Team Julie” may do so by visiting the DetermiNation site at: main.acsevents.org/site/TR?fr_id=69178&pg=pfind and entering the name Jacquelyn Nagel.

Or send contributions to: American Cancer Society

Attn: Team Julie / Jacquelyn Nagel participant

Bank of America Chicago Marathon

225 N Michigan Ave # 1200

Chicago, IL 60601

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