“Ovarian cancer used to be called the silent killer, but we’re realizing now that there are symptoms of the disease every day during its earlier stages,” said Ellen Marshall, director of the oncology support program at Benedictine Hospital as well as the coordinator of the hospital’s Linda Young ovarian cancer support group, which meets monthly. The ten-year-old group was named to honor the late Linda Young, a Benedictine nurse and Woodstock resident who died of ovarian cancer.
“We want to encourage women to know and pay attention to their bodies,” said Marshall. “The symptoms of ovarian cancer can whisper, and we want women listening whenever they can.”
The numbers don’t lie. Ovarian cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths among U.S. women, and according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, the five-year survival rate for women with advanced ovarian cancer is approximately 30 percent.
It’s important for women to stay informed about their health and the warning signs of the disease, said Christine Fitchett of Poughkeepsie, winner of the Linda Young Support Group’s Annual Survivor Award. Fitchett will be recognized at the group’s tenth annual dinner dance, which includes live and silent auctions and live music, that begins at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 25 at the Wiltwyck Country Club in Kingston. (Tickets are $60 per person. Proceeds will go toward the support group and ovarian cancer awareness. For more information or for reservations, call 339-2017, ext. 100, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)
Fitchett was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November 2008 and is in remission from the disease, having just completed drug treatment. With a genetically high risk for cancer (Fitchett’s sister, Sherry, who died in 2008, was a 20-year breast cancer survivor), Fitchett got annual screenings prior to being diagnosed.
“One year I was fine, one year I was stage three,” said Fitchett, referring to her cancer classification. “I second-guessed myself about how often I was being screened, but my doctor assured me that’s not the case. Six months is plenty of time for a cancer to grow and metastasize.”
Fitchett had surgery to remove the cancer in 2008 and began undergoing chemotherapy. Because she was also at a high risk for breast cancer, she underwent a double mastectomy in August 2009. In November of last year, she was diagnosed with a recurrence of ovarian cancer and began chemotherapy again.
“It’s been kind of a long two years,” she said with a laugh.
The truth is that treatment for ovarian cancer, as with any other cancer, is a long, rigorous process, said Gwen Harding-Peets of Hyde Park, herself an ovarian cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with the disease in early 2005 after struggling for months with the common symptoms — abdominal pain, bloating, fatigue, lower back pain, digestive problems, and feeling full too quickly.
“I had all the classical symptoms and then some,” said Harding-Peets, who has undergone six rounds of chemotherapy and is currently in remission. “But we’re finally starting to make a peep on the national scene in terms of awareness. Five years ago, if you asked women what the symptoms are, 99 percent wouldn’t have been able to tell you. But now women are seeing [physicians], they’re reading about the disease and they understand that there are symptoms. We stand a better chance of overcoming it.”
The symptoms of ovarian cancer (those experienced by Harding-Peets) can mirror those of irritable bowel syndrome, menopause or other relatively common health issues. But doctors say that if symptoms persist for more than a few weeks, that could indicate advanced-stage cancer, where tumor growth creates pressure on internal organs and fluid forms. The symptoms shouldn’t be ignored.
Faced with a terrifying prognosis — Harding-Peets was given a 17% to 30% chance of surviving — she drew inspiration from a number of sources, the foremost being an e-mail from her father in the first few days after learning she had the disease.
“He wrote that people always put cancer in terms of the negatives, but I’m a sample of one,” she recalled. “He said, you’re going to go into remission no matter what the statistics say. That got me saying, Okay, what am I going to do to the beat this?”
Seeking other peers to speak with during treatment, Harding-Peets got involved with the Linda Young Support Group and was inspired by the experience.
“It’s a group of phenomenal women who have been extremely supportive and understanding,” she said of the group. “We have each other’s e-mail addresses and telephone numbers and everyone is always there for each other.”
Marshall said that there were no local support groups available a decade ago, at the time of Linda Young’s death, and family and friends came together to create a resource for women coping with the disease. “We try to raise awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer and offer support for those undergoing diagnoses and treatment,” said Marshall.
The group’s annual dinner dance is its largest fundraiser, and a chance to honor its members, said Marshall.
“I’m so thrilled she’s being honored this year,” said Harding-Peets of Fitchett. “She’s really added a lot to the group. She’s an inspiration to us.”
“Spreading the word is really important,” said Fitchett. “Stay informed, learn about the symptoms, and know your family history. If you think something is off, don’t hesitate to see a doctor. Getting treated early is key because it’s amazing what new treatments and therapies can do.”
More work remains
But like many others, Harding-Peets is also realistic about her diagnosis. She knows that the disease is likely to return at some point, and she continues the call for awareness and funding for research.
“The reality is that the disease is probably going to recur at some time,” she said. “I look for hope in research and empowering women to take charge of their own health.”
The high mortality rate for ovarian cancer makes it more difficult for support groups and networks to remain intact long enough to do what’s needed to spread the word about the disease, said Harding-Peets. But medical advances, coupled with the increasing ease of Internet communication, have helped programs like the Linda Young group gain footing.
“We’re finally starting to gain momentum,” said Harding-Peets.
And unlike with many other forms of cancer, there is no dedicated medical test for the presence of ovarian cancer, which means that above all else women should be aware of the symptoms and unafraid to let their doctor know.
“Until there’s a test, awareness is best,” said Harding-Peets.
Also being honored by the Linda Young Support Program this year is Sarah Urech, one of the founders of the program. She will be receiving the Compassion in Cancer Care Award. The program meets on the last Wednesday of every month from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
The dinner-dance will include live and silent auctions and live music and begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are $60 per person. Proceeds will go toward the support group and ovarian cancer awareness. For more information or for reservations, call 339-2017, ext. 100, or e-mail email@example.com.++