- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

You wouldn’t think that someone could feel “so fortunate” to be diagnosed with two stage I cancers.

Sherry Salway Black, executive director of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, however, says her diagnosis was probably “the best gift” for her 12th wedding anniversary.

On Valentine’s Day 2002, she and her husband spent an anxious day awaiting news of her fate instead celebrating their marriage.

“When we got our diagnosis, I said either we’re seeing a catastrophe or the best gift we ever got,” Mrs. Black says.

She emphasizes “we” whenever speaking of her illness, treatment, relapse, remission and hopeful recovery because her supportive husband, Ron Simpson Black, “has been with me to every single appointment since that time.”

Mrs. Black’s cautionary tale is one that men, as well as women, should heed.

While making those New Year’s resolutions to live a healthier lifestyle, you might start by getting an annual checkup that includes screening and testing for a variety of illnesses, especially if you are a baby boomer.

However, the problem with ovarian cancer is that there is no effective early screening — and 81 percent of ovarian-cancer patients are diagnosed with advanced stages of the disease.

Initially, one pathologist said Mrs. Black had a more-advanced ovarian cancer that had spread from the ovaries to the uterus. A second determined that she had advanced endometrial/uterine cancer that had spread to the ovaries. A third, “who just didn’t feel comfortable with either diagnosis,” determined that Mrs. Black had two primary cancers that were in their early stages.

“This actually ended up being better,” says the 53-year-old Fredericksburg, Va., survivor.

Mrs. Black’s saga illustrates not only the difficulty of diagnosing ovarian cancer, but also that little is known about its symptoms or effective treatment.

Last week, the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance happily alerted its membership to a recent National Cancer Institute announcement recommending a combination of intraperitoneal (IP) and intravenous (IV) therapy to extend survival rates for women with advanced ovarian cancer.

A clinical trial involving 429 women with stage III ovarian cancer was described Thursday in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The trial, led by Dr. Deborah Armstrong, an oncologist at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore, and her colleagues in the Gynecologic Oncology Group found that women treated with the combination IP and IV therapy had a median survival time of 16 months longer than women who had IV treatment only.

Much of the knowledge gap about ovarian cancer is a result of a lack of funding for research, resources and information like that distributed through the “Turn Up the Volume” public-awareness campaign started late last year by the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.

The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance is a patient-led umbrella group uniting ovarian-cancer activists, women’s health advocates and health care professionals in the effort to increase public and professional understanding of ovarian cancer and advocate for more effective diagnostics, treatments and a cure

Of the 49 Ovarian Cancer National Alliance partners, the Ovarian and Gynecological Cancer Coalition of Greater Washington/Rhonda’s Club in Arlington gets out the word about the disease, in part, through public-service ads on the Metro.

Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora fame and currently of 1789 Restaurant is hosting a “Celebrate Women Chefs: Turn Up the Heat” benefit in conjunction with the national group to help battle ovarian cancer March 7 at the Ritz-Carlton.

Last year, more than 22,220 women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and 16,210 died of this deadliest of gynecologic cancers, Mrs. Black says. Ovarian-cancer symptoms often are misdiagnosed as gastrointestinal problems.

Symptoms include abdominal pressure, bloating or discomfort; nausea, indigestion or gas; constipation, diarrhea or frequent urination; abnormal bleeding; unusual fatigue; unexpected weight loss or gain, and shortness of breath.

This “bundle of symptoms” is neither vague nor mild, as some suggest, Mrs. Black says. In her case, she had at least three risk factors: She was entering menopause, she had never given birth and she had only taken birth-control pills for very short period, during her 20s.

Before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she suffered abnormal bleeding and odd lower-back pains.

“When I was diagnosed with this, I did not at any point think that I was going to die, even though I know women must be terrified when they read the statistics,” Mrs. Black says. She told herself: ‘You have something to do yet.’”

A member of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota, she said: “In native culture, we have to give back for [the gifts] you have received.”

Through the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, she wants “to do what I can to help other women have the information and resources they need to survive this disease.”

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