Ovarian Cancer: A Silent Killer

When Sue Hester felt little twinges of pain above her pelvic bone that lasted just seconds, she thought little of it. “I’m great at ignoring things that go away,” says Hester, 63. With an upcoming trip scheduled, Hester decided to see her gynecologist. A trans-vaginal ultrasound detected tumors that ultimately measured 4cm and 7cm.

Although no cancer runs in her family, Hester was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer and underwent surgery within a week.

“When something like this happens to you when you’ve been well all your life, you go into shock mode,” she says.

Ovarian cancer is the fourth most common cause of death among women in the United States, mainly because 75 percent of cases are diagnosed in later stages. Of the 26,000 cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed annually in America, 15,000 women will die.

The Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance (COCA) strives to change these staggering statistics by educating both the public and medical community about this silent killer. Founded in 2005, the nonprofit organization also offers support for survivors and networking opportunities for those battling this disease.

“It’s very important to know that there is no screening for ovarian cancer,” says COCA Executive Director Pep Torres. “There seems to be a very prominent misperception that if you get an annual pap smear and it comes out clean, you’re okay.” The symptoms are very subtle and are often misdiagnosed. Bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary frequency are the main symptoms to watch for. Torres, who lost her mother to ovarian cancer, stresses that the disease can strike women as early as their 20s and 30s.

COCA founding member and Licensed Professional Counselor Susan Hess has worked with women battling ovarian cancer for more than a decade. “I find it very inspiring. The diagnosis often causes them to look at life in a new and fresh way,” she says. Hess is the facilitator of Nicki’s Circle, a support group where women with ovarian cancer share their experiences, feelings and

“Cancer is very psychological because once you’ve been diagnosed and know that it can come back, it’s on your mind all the time,” says Hester, who attends Nicki’s Circle once a month.

The knowledge and support Hester has received from fellow survivors is immeasurable. “All the women in these support groups have been fabulous. It’s a really warm and inviting atmosphere,” she says. But after 19 infusions of chemotherapy, Hester’s cancer returned in May.

While Hester is devastated that the cancer has come back so quickly, she strives to maintain a positive outlook. “The good news is that I feel well now,” the survivor says.

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Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance

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The Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance (COCA) strives to promote awareness about ovarian cancer through education, advocacy and support. Since there is no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer, it is essential that women are aware of the symptoms. Throughout the year, COCA staffs information booths at various 9Health Fairs across the state and has organized a March to the Capitol, where hundreds of supporters rally on behalf of ovarian cancer awareness.

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, and a Teal Soiree will be held on September 24th at the Cable Center at the University of Denver to benefit this disease.

COCA’s most notable event and main fundraiser is Jodi’s Race for Awareness, started by Colorado native Jodi Brammeier. “She had a very advanced diagnosis and was very passionate about getting awareness out,” says Susan Hess. “She felt the best way to do that would be to have a race because she was a runner and knew how many people came out for races.”

The first annual Jodi’s Race, a 5K race and 1K walk, took place in 2010 and was a great success. However, 2010 was a tough year for COCA, according to Pep Torres. The nonprofit organization lost Jodi two months after the race, along with the board president and 22 women from Nicki’s Circle.

“That’s the balancing act that we have to go back and forth with: grieving and dealing with sorrow, but at the same time using that to inspire us to want to do more to really help these women and help their families,” Torres says. This year, Jodi’s Race raised $140,000. “Everything was just bigger and better and I think Jodi would be very happy,” Torres says. The next Jodi’s Race is scheduled for June 2, 2012.

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