MASON CITY — Ellen Shawgo had never tried marijuana in her life.
So when an employee of a medical cannabis (marijuana) dispensary in Springfield asked her which form of medical marijuana she wanted to try, she didn't know.
"There were leaves for smoking; capsules; edibles, which is food with cannabis added; and oil you could put under your tongue," said Shawgo, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer that has returned and spread to her lymph nodes.
"It's like, 'Oh my! What do I do?'" Shawgo recalled with a smile.
"But they were very helpful. They asked me 'Are you a smoker?' I said 'No, I've never smoked.'" So they suggested that she start with capsules.
Since that experience in October, Shawgo has taken a single capsule or a single edible serving of medical marijuana each night to help her manage side effects of chemotherapy, including nausea, loss of appetite and vomiting.
Her appetite slowly returned, and she gained weight and strength.
Shawgo smiled again and adjusted her cap. The window behind her offered a view of the family farm north of Mason City — about an hour southwest of Bloomington-Normal — where she grew up and continues to live.
The 60-year-old woman illustrates a trend: People who had never used marijuana but are using medical marijuana and experiencing relief from side effects of treatment or symptoms of disease.
Illinois allows patients diagnosed with about 40 debilitating conditions to be eligible for a medical cannabis registry identification card, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Conditions include HIV/AIDS, cancer, Crohn's disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, post-concussion syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and rheumatoid arthritis.
From Sept. 2, 2014, when IDPH began accepting applications for the Medical Cannabis Registry Program, until Feb. 1, the department approved applications for 15,900 qualifying patients. There are 51 licensed medical cannabis dispensaries statewide, including The Green Solution Illinois, 501 W. Northtown Road, Normal.
"I don't want people to not try it because of the stigma of using cannabis," Shawgo said. "To me, it's another medicine, that, for me, works better than some others."
Shawgo grew up on the family farm with her parents and four older brothers. She worked 15 years as a sports writer and copy editor for the Lincoln Courier, then 14 years as a copy editor and page designer for The Pantagraph.
"I hardly ever went to the doctor because I was never sick," she said. But the single woman did have yearly mammograms.
In fall 2013, her right breast was sore and she felt a small lump when she had her yearly mammogram. Her doctor told her that she had a sore pectoral muscle that would take a couple of months to heal.
When the soreness remained after two months and was accompanied by a rash on the breast, Shawgo went back. A physician's assistant ordered a biopsy, which revealed breast cancer.
"It was Stage 3.1 already," Shawgo said. Stage 3 cancer has spread beyond the area of the tumor and may have invaded nearby lymph nodes and muscles.
"I was devastated," she said. "But I had a brother who died of leukemia, my mother had something similar to Lou Gehrig's disease and my dad had congestive heart failure. In my family, when you're sick, you keep going. So I did."
Chemotherapy began in December 2013 in an effort to shrink the tumor. "I had nausea, lost all my hair and my appetite."
In April 2014, after eight rounds of chemo, she had a radical mastectomy of her right breast, which included removal of some lymph nodes.
During summer 2014, she had 28 radiation treatments to zap any remaining cancer cells.
In early 2016, she was walking her two dogs — Sophie and Abbie — when she noticed a pain in her right shoulder at the collar bone. An MRI revealed a small tumor, which was diagnosed in May as a return of the breast cancer, this time in the soft tissue near the collarbone.
During summer 2016, she had six radiation treatments. The lump disappeared but a CT scan showed the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes.
"You can't radiate your whole body so they started chemo again in September," Shawgo said.
"Once I started chemo again, I couldn't eat anything. The chemo took my appetite away. I'd eat dry cereal and crackers and then would throw up two to three times a day."
Her primary care physician in Lincoln worked with Shawgo on adjusting her diet. "Nothing she tried helped me."
In early 2016, Shawgo — who is 5-foot-6½-inches' tall — weighed 203 pounds. By September, she weighed 119 pounds.
One day, she asked her home health care nurse about medical marijuana.
"She said 'Yeah, I'd like to talk with you about it because some of my patients have had good luck with it,'" Shawgo recalled.
Shawgo met with her Springfield oncologist, who agreed to complete a form verifying her diagnosis. "He was very willing to try it," Shawgo said.
Shawgo completed an application, was fingerprinted, provided proof of residency and photo ID and mailed everything to IDPH in Springfield.
On Oct. 6, she was issued her medical cannabis registered qualifying patient card, which expires in three years but may be renewed. Because Shawgo is on Social Security Disability, she is paying a reduced rate of $50 a year for the card. Full price is $100 a year.
Shawgo went to HCI Alternatives, a medical cannabis dispensary in Springfield. She knew that, as a registered patient, should could purchase no more than 2.5 ounces of medical cannabis every 14 days.
After checking her registration, an employee helped Shawgo, who purchased capsules. "I had to pay in cash. It costs almost $2 a pill. It's not covered by insurance."
"The first time I took it (she takes one pill a night), it knocked me out. From then on, it's been more of a relaxing thing.
"Within the first week, when I tried food, it didn't taste bad," Shawgo recalled. Slowly, she reintroduced foods to her diet. "They tasted good."
"I'm not eating as much as I used to but more than I did a few months ago," she said.
Once when Shawgo went to HCI, it was out of capsules, so she decided to try edibles. While she generally takes a capsule, she has tried servings of a strawberry white chocolate bar, a brownie pop, pretzels and fudge bites.
"They work just as well," she said. She spends $14 to $26 a week on medical marijuana.
As her appetite returned, she gained weight. She weighed 133 pounds last week.
"My doctor has been amazed," Shawgo said.
"I feel 100 percent better. For a while, I didn't go anywhere. No one wants to throw up in front of anybody. And I didn't have strength to go out. I was staying home doing nothing and feeling bad all the time.
"They gave me the strength to do stuff," she said, gesturing to the medical marijuana. "They have allowed me to go on living. If I hadn't put on weight, I don't know where I'd be."
Shawgo doesn't know how much longer she will be doing chemotherapy.
"My oncologist told me this cancer is not curable but it's maintainable," Shawgo said. "My goal is to keep living one day at a time."
"People ask me, 'What would your mom and dad think of you using medical marijuana?'
"I think they would be happy that I'm feeling better and it seems to be working."