Walk to raise ovarian cancer awareness and help research
When I received the devastating news that I had ovarian cancer in November 2013, a multitude of thoughts raced through my mind about surgery, treatment, my chances of survival, losing my hair to chemotherapy, and so much more.
While the hamster wheel in my brain kept spinning faster, the reality suddenly hit me that I had to tell my children I had cancer... again.
Some conversations are never easy at any time, and this was one of those times. In 2000, I was a single parent of a teenage daughter and pre-teen son when I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, an early form of breast cancer. I’ll never forget sitting in my living room trying to tell them in a reassuring voice what I was facing for surgery and treatment and how it would change our everyday lives.
While there were some challenges and side effects from radiation, my children and I made it through as a team, and I have done well since.
This time, with my children in their 20s, the conversation was harder for me because this was a different disease, possibly more devastating this time, as ovarian cancer doesn’t have a good survival rate. It is more often found in the later stages of the disease because the symptoms are vague.
On Saturday, September 25, 2021, I will once again be participating in the Girly Girl P.A.R.T.S. (Pre-screening Awareness Required to Silence …ovarian cancer) 5K run/ walk, as a much healthier and grateful participant. The event will be held at Craigville Beach in Barnstable.
“Our goal is to reach one million dollars this year,” said Laura Smith, one of the founders of the organization.
Ovarian cancer is a troubling disease because it is hard to detect, said Cape Cod Hospital Chief Medical Officer and OB/GYN William Agel, MD.
“Ovarian cancer is thankfully a relatively uncommon disease, but carries with it a difficult prognosis,” he said. “While there have been great strides in new treatments in ovarian cancer over the last few years, it still remains a difficult disease to diagnose early in its course.”
My symptoms of ovarian cancer were subtle but classic. I was experiencing fatigue, bloating, and a feeling of my stomach being full all the time as if I had eaten a big meal, which are among the signs and symptoms of the disease listed by the American Cancer Society. They are also symptoms of common benign diseases.
I was traveling back and forth to Boston from the Cape three days a week for work, so I attributed my symptoms to my long days and less than ideal eating habits.
One morning, I pushed down on the left side of my abdomen because I had some tenderness and felt a small area of swelling. I contacted my primary care physician’s office and made an appointment. Thankfully, she listened intently to my symptoms and ordered an abdominal ultrasound. The radiologist saw something that concerned him and an abdominal CT scan later that morning confirmed tumors on both ovaries.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and do include mild abdominal discomfort and bloating, Dr. Agel said.
“The key to early diagnosis of ovarian cancer is vigilance in following up on these symptoms. Certainly, most women with these symptoms do not have ovarian cancer; and the symptoms will resolve without any more intervention than a change in diet or an antacid. But symptoms that persist for more than a few days or weeks should prompt a discussion with your PCP or gynecologist who should perform a thorough physical exam and recommend appropriate follow up.”
I was referred to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where I met with a gynecologic oncologist who scheduled my surgery for Christmas Eve Day, and I spent five days in the hospital following a complete hysterectomy. After a three-week recuperation from surgery, I began 24 weekly chemotherapy treatments, which I completed in June 2014.
That Fall, I walked in the Girly Girl P.A.R.T.S. 5K walk/run to raise money for ovarian cancer research and to create a positive memory with my children, my sisters and close friends who traveled with me through the highs and lows of treatment. While I walked very slowly and could only do about half of the course, it felt good to give back and support this wonderful organization.
Since its inception in 2009, the non-profit has raised $900,000, which is donated to Ursula A. Matulonis, MD, chief of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, for clinical trials and research of ovarian cancer.
“A lot of the trials Dr. Matulonis has created will lead us towards a pre-screening tool,” said Smith.
Smith and her close friend, Jill DiTommaso, who died of ovarian cancer in 2015 after eight years of fighting the disease, started the organization to raise awareness and support ovarian cancer research.
“I was always struck by the fact that she was going through so much and she was always driven to make sure women coming behind her would not have to suffer like that,” said Trish Cundiff, race director of Girly Girl P.A.R.T.S.
Both Smith and Cundiff remember their friend as a fighter, an advocate for research to go towards developing a diagnostic tool for ovarian cancer and always having an upbeat attitude. “She was a rock star,” said Cundiff.
While the 5K walk/run is to raise money for research it is also about raising awareness and conversation about the signs and symptoms of the disease, said Cundiff.
Approximately 21,410 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021 and 13,770 will die from it, according to the American Cancer Society. The disease ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women.
Cause for Celebration
There will be cause for celebration if the walk/run reaches the goal of one million dollars this year.
“It was Jill’s goal before she passed,” said Smith. “She wanted a million dollars the first year, she was one of those people who reached for the stars.”
“It would make a statement about what one person can start with a seed; a million dollars from a little 5K,” said Cundiff.