Moving Ovarian Cancer into the Public Spotlight

Misread symptoms, lack of early-detection process and inadequate education about ovarian cancer can spell trouble for those who suffer it.

Ovarian cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the United States, accounting for 4 percent of all cancers in women, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). However, it has the highest mortality rate of all the cancers involving a female’s reproductive system. The reason is late diagnosis, according to the NCI.

It is estimated that in 2007, more than 20,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and more than 15,000 will die from it. For women of minority groups, American Indian/Alaska Natives are at the highest risk, followed by Hispanic and then African American women.

According to CDC, incidence rates are higher for white women than for any other racial or ethnic group, however, African-American women have a slightly higher death rate among other minority women because they are more often diagnosed in advanced stages.

But the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, Inc. (NOCC),  now in it’s 11th year, is determined to advocate for ovarian cancer survivors and victims and educate people about the facts, all while maintaining its grassroots perspective.

“We’re trying to reach out on the national level as well as the local level,” said Jane Langridge, chief executive officer of NOCC, headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla. “Although I believe every month is important for ovarian cancer, September provides us an extra opportunity to contact the media and educate the public.”

With September designated as National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Langridge said the organization uses the time to bring even more awareness to ovarian cancer, its more than 80 statewide chapters and their national campaign, “Break the Silence,” with CSI Miami actress Eva LaRue, which promotes dialogue about the disease among women, their physicians and family and friends.

“This disease impacts everyone,” Langridge said. “The men aren’t the ones who have to suffer the disease ravaging their bodies, but they’re as impacted. They’re losing their loved ones, their wives, their daughters.”

Since the inception of the campaign, Langridge said she has received more calls from people looking for information, but she still meets with some hesitation.

“I think people are threatened by any disease that has a low survival rate and people don’t like bad news,” she said. “I think another reason is because it’s a female disease and it’s below the belt.”

Leslie Hoffman, chapter coordinator for the Pittsburgh chapter of NOCC,  said she finds that many women she presents information to about ovarian cancer think it’s enough to have a pap smear.

“It is very scary,” Hoffman said, “and a lot of times it’s because no one ever talked to them about it. All of the sudden it comes into their life and they want to know everything.”

The Pittsburgh chapter offers monthly meetings, free NOCC literature and “Picking up the Pieces, a program that matches newly diagnosed women with survivors. To increase awareness the chapter is active in community health fairs, works with area hospitals presenting to churches, senior citizen groups, local physicians and students in the health field. The chapter also puts on its annual Karen F. Bowers Memorial Walk for the Whisper, now in its seventh year. The September walk is expected to draw more than 2,000 people and 120 survivors and, according to Hoffman, serves as a way to celebrate the lives of survivors while honoring the memory of those who have died.

According to Hoffman, a local chapter can make all the difference.

“I’ve found that having a chapter here kind of means they have a support system to draw energy from,” Hoffman said. “For many of them it’s empowering, because if one woman gets diagnosed early they feel it was worth it.”

Three-year ovarian cancer survivor Jackie Dandridge said the chapter has meant the world to her, helping her put her experience in perspective.

“When you think of the word cancer, you think of it as a death sentence and it doesn’t have to be that,” she said. “It was a very traumatic experience, but a very humbling one. It was because of this I took a whole new lease on life.”

Diagnosed in June 2003 with ovarian cancer, the 57-year-old said she knew something wasn’t right. Her hourly trips to the restroom made her wonder if she had a bladder infection, but tests came back negative. But about three months later, Dandridge said she was constipated and her abdomen had swollen to the point where she looked six months pregnant. The sonogram results were inconclusive, but a cat scan revealed stage two ovarian cancer.

“I kind of looked at the doctor like, ‘what are you saying to me,'” Dandridge said. “I didn’t know anything about ovarian cancer.”

Six rounds of chemotherapy, a hysterectomy and partial removal of her colon, left Dandridge bald, connected to a colostomy bag and almost 50 pounds lighter.

“People would run into me and not know what to say,” she said. “But I weathered the storm. I found out how much I’m truly loved.”

Single and without children or family in Pittsburgh, Dandridge said she relied on several friends who brought her food, kept her home clean and changed her bag.

Within eight months Dandridge’s body had healed enough for her to return to work, but that September a coworker and fellow ovarian cancer survivor suggested Dandridge attend The Walk for the Whisper. And Dandridge has been involved ever since, staying positive, attending meetings, growing more hair and regaining the weight she had lost and then some.

“I’m a very spiritual person,” Dandridge said, “so I knew that with my faith in God I would be okay, but I don’t think I would be as strong as I am now.”

Through informative meetings, Dandridge said she’s been able to shed the fear.

“I’m not afraid of the word cancer,” she said. “I’m not afraid to talk about it. Through my participation, I’ve been empowered by being able to give back to other survivors who are on the same journey with me.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health
By Fia Curley