When Marcy Weight of Coon Rapids found out at the age of 57 that she had ovarian cancer, she knew nothing about the disease or the fact that three other family members had it.
She thought her aunt, cousin and grandmother had stomach cancer, but she later learned they had ovarian cancer.
Weight’s story is fairly common for those who have or know someone with ovarian cancer. Most are diagnosed when they are older. About half when they are 63 years old and older, according to the American Cancer Society, although much younger women can get it. Having family members with ovarian cancer can also increase your risk, although the risk is greater if their mother, sister or daughter had it.
But Weight is one of the lucky ones who beat ovarian cancer 16 years ago.
Knowledge of ovarian cancer is also not as high, even today, as it is for other types of cancer, said Kathleen Gavin, executive director of the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, which was formed in 1999 and since 2010 has been a beneficiary of an annual run/walk fundraiser organized by Final Stretch, Inc. to raise awareness and funds for early detection, treatment, and education.
Once known as the Diva Dash, the Athleta Unleash the SHE event took place for the first time at the National Sports Center in Blaine Nov. 16 and drew approximately 1,750 people. Many wore teal – the nationally recognized ovarian cancer color.
“Some people feel like pink (for breast cancer) is the only women’s cancer,” Gavin said. “This is a reminder that there are other cancers that affect women. Ovarian cancer has been overlooked for so long and underfunded, so to have so many women out here in teal is just an incredible show of support.”
Although ovarian cancer is the ninth most common cancer among women it ranks fifth in cancer deaths for women and accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 22,240 women receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer each year and about 14,230 women die from the disease.
Mayo Clinic says ovarian cancer often goes undetected until its gets to the pelvis and abdomen and pain is noticed and by then it can be difficult to treat. Some young women find out they have ovarian cancer during fertility tests, Gavin said.
Persistent indigestion, changes in bowel habits, a frequent need to urinate, loss of appetite, increased abdominal girth, a persistent lack of energy and low back pain are some of the red flags to watch for. But some of these symptoms could be caused by other diseases.
Age, obesity, certain fertility drugs, never being pregnant, a family history of ovarian cancer, a previous diagnosis of breast, colon, rectum or uterine cancer and inherited gene mutation are some of the risk factors for getting ovarian cancer, according to the American Cancer Society and Mayo Clinic.
More than $4 million has been provided by the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance since it formed in 1999 and much of the money has gone funded research projects, according to Gavin, who became the organization’s executive director in 2002.
Besides the Athleta Unleash the SHE fundraiser, the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance does a Tie it Teal awareness campaign each September when it encourages people to wear teal shirts, teal shoelaces and put up numerous other teal items such as car magnets in visible places. It also has a golf tournament and a gala.
The Athleta Unleash the SHE started in 2010 as the Diva Dash with the mission of getting more involvement from people outside the metro area and it partnered with Final Stretch to make this happen.
“I especially love the big groups where there’s someone is affected by ovarian cancer and a whole group of supporters come together,” Gavin said. “Just seeing the teal, it’s a great show of support for women in the community.”
Bev Wassenaar of Hills was diagnosed in August at the age of 69. She has already undergone three chemotherapy sessions with three weeks separating each and will go in for surgery next week.
Jerry Ackerman, husband of Bev’s twin sister Betty, said their two daughters were the first to mention participating in this run/walk event and it kept growing from there until nine family members decided to run. Almost 20 more showed up to cheer them on.
“The family and friend support has been great,” Wassenaar said.
Lynn Concepcion of Coon Rapids works in the health care field, but ovarian cancer was not really on her mind until her 17-year-old cousin AimeeJo Ayshford was diagnosed around last Christmas. Thankfully, it was caught early enough for surgery and chemo to make a difference. She is now a survivor and is getting her hair back. Ayshford participated in a first ever fashion show that took place the night before the race.
“I’ve got to get the awareness out that this is a silent disease. It’s not something you typically get a lot of symptoms for until you have it and it’s prevalent,” Concepcion said. “I want women to know that this can happen and it can happen to anyone at any age.”
Ayshford knew something was wrong because of a stomach pain that would not go away, but it took a month before the tumor was found and a softball size mass had to be removed in the middle of chemotherapy.
Weight said it is important for women to “know your body” so you can understand when something is not right. If you are diagnosed, stay positive.
“Faith, attitude, family is important,” she said. “Stay positive. There’s always hope.”
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]