Aiken resident John Cantwell remembers driving by a billboard advertisement in Augusta about ovarian cancer while his late wife Sandra said she would not have to worry about that because she had had her ovaries taken out.
On Sept. 1 of last year, Sandra lost her battle with ovarian cancer, survived by her husband, daughter Laura and son Walter. She was 63 years old. Before her cancer diagnosis, Cantwell noticed his wife’s stomach would become upset if she ate certain foods, and then she would get a cold or the flu during Christmas time.
“We went to the doctor, and they didn’t like the way her stomach was swollen,” Cantwell said. “They sent her to an oncologist and then diagnosed her with stage four ovarian cancer.”
Cantwell said finding a doctor an individual can feel comfortable with is very important.
“One thing is that you and the patient need to be comfortable with your doctor,” Cantwell said. “You take each day and you have as much fun and make it as normal as you can. You don’t have to sit around and dwell. Go out and do some things you normally do, that’s a gift. You don’t have to let it take over your life.”
Ovarian cancer makes up 3 percent of cancers found among woman, but it causes more deaths than any other in the female reproductive system, according to the American Cancer Society.
The estimation of new ovarian cancer cases in the United States for 2013 are 22,240 and deaths estimated to be 14,030. Within South Carolina, deaths are estimated to be 210.
Ovarian cancer develops mainly in older woman, and about half of the woman diagnosed are those 63 years or older. The rate at which women have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer has slowly decreased over the past 20 years.
Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries and are reproductive glands found only in females. As the ovaries produce eggs for reproduction, the eggs travel through the fallopian tubes into the uterus where the fertilized egg develops then into a fetus. Ovaries are the main estrogen and progesterone source of hormones in females. The three kinds of cells making up ovaries include epithelial cells, covering the ovaries; germ cells, found inside the ovary; and stromal cells, which support the tissue holding the ovary together. Each cell can become a different type of tumor.
The most common symptoms attributed to ovarian cancer are bloating, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, frequent urination and bloating. Other symptoms include back pain, pain during sex, constipation, fatigue and abdominal swelling with weight loss.
While these are symptoms which could occur in just about any woman who does not have ovarian cancer, a physical exam with a doctor will conclude a diagnosis.
Doctors will use different techniques and procedures looking for cancer or after finding it, including a CT scan, colonoscopy, biopsy and an ultrasound.
In treating ovarian cancer, there are a selection of options including radiation and hormone therapy and chemotherapy.
“When she (Sandra) was initially diagnosed and started the chemo, that was probably about one of the worst periods we had with it,” Cantwell said. “It had gotten to a point where it was stage four, and she was nauseated. Of course, the chemo did not help that. She stayed on chemo for a while, and the doctor did surgery to take tumors out of her body, as well as her spleen. Sometimes the chemotherapy drug would work and then sometimes it wouldn’t.”
Sandra was placed in a clinical trial as a test subject for a new drug. The drugs affected participants in different ways, and, for Sandra, she eventually had to be taken off it due to its negative side effects.
Sandra regularly received blood infusions, and, according to Cantwell, Sandra became a “poster child” for the diagnosis.
“Because of the children, she didn’t want them to see her complain or feel sorry for herself,” Cantwell said. “She would always put on a good face and smile. I could see the expression in her face, not a lot of crying or mashing of the teeth. In Aiken, the support was really great with support from the church and friends. They were just wonderful.”
While many may rely on family or friends and religious groups for support, local ovarian cancer organization Gail’s Anatomy in memory of Gail Mills, was started by Mills’ mother Debbie as a way to bring awareness to a cause which according to Mills, goes many times unnoticed with women.
A Silver Bluff High School and USC Aiken graduate, Gail passed away from ovarian cancer in February 2007.
In 2012, Gail’s Anatomy relay team raised more than $22,000 for the American Cancer Society.
According to Mills, the group uses teal for visibility around the community as a way to educate all ages about ovarian cancer, its symptoms and early detection.
“I came into work one day shortly after Gail passed and got a phone call from a guy downstairs,” Mills said. “He had the Aiken County Relay For Life coordinator, Courtney Cooper, and she was downstairs at URS. So I went downstairs, and she had such a bubbly, exciting personality, and she had heard about Gail and said she was so sorry. We talked briefly, and I remembered what Gail said about the relay, how it would be so different walking as a survivor.”
While working as an executive at Target, part of Gail’s job was community involvement, and, as a part of that, she would bring together team members to volunteer on United Way projects, Special Olympics and Relay for Life.
When Gail was diagnosed she told her mom the coming Relay For Life would be different because she would she would be walking as a survivor. After Gail went for her annual check up, she passed away three and a half months later.
Mills had never been to a relay but wanted to find a way to somehow honor and celebrate her daughter.
Cooper told Mills the coming theme for the relay would be “A Night of a Thousand Stars” in celebration with movies.
Mills could not think of a movie which Gail liked, but a television show instead, “Grey’s Anatomy.”
With Gail’s Anatomy, Mills and co-captain Alicia Owens have spread awareness to various cities, receiving proclamations from Mayor Fred Cavanaugh and the mayor from Jackson. Schools around Aiken and in Augusta display signs about awareness and various sports teams from USC Aiken wear teal during September.
“Who would think when you graduate from college, that seven years later you’d be diagnosed with ovarian cancer?” Mills asked. “And three months later, you’ve lost your battle. That’s why it’s so important for young people to know the symptoms and pay attention to your body. That’s why any local business, corporation that can do something would really make a different. Let us come in and share at least the signs and symptoms.
Cantwell continually remembers the way his late wife Sandra kept a good face, even through the duration of cancer.
“One night we went to Moe’s restaurant on Whiskey Road,” Cantwell said. “One of the foods she could eat, and it would not upset her. We sat outside and ate and laughed, and that was a really good time. I will always remember the way she handled ovarian cancer with grace and dignity.”
For more information about Gail’s Anatomy, visit www.ovariancancerawareness4life.org.
For more information about the American Cancer Society, visit cancer.org
Maayan Schechter is the City beat reporter with Aiken Standard. An Atlanta native, she has a mass communications-journalism degree from the University of North Carolina Asheville.