Tammy Harr, BSN, helps Maribeth at the James E. Cary Cancer Center.
In shorts, t-shirt and yellow Life is Good baseball cap, 47-year-old Maribeth settled in to a recliner in the infusion room at the James E. Cary Cancer Center. This smiling-eyed survivor, undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, is working to teach other women to recognize the signs of the disease.
Maribeth was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in March, 2005. “I originally thought it was a bladder infection,” Maribeth explained. “I had a full checkup in July 2004 and received a clean bill of health. But after that, I started to feel tired. I didn’t want to eat and I had back pain.”
Symptoms of ovarian cancer are non-specific and mimic other diseases. But with ovarian cancer, the symptoms persist and may worsen over time. Symptoms may include abdominal pressure, swelling or bloating; tiredness; no appetite; urinary urgency; changes in bowel or bladder habits; and increased abdominal girth.
At first Maribeth thought her symptoms were due to her work schedule. As a third-shift employee at General Mills, she was working night hours driving a tow-motor. “I had been working overtime and was tired. The thought never crossed my mind that it could be something more serious.”
Maribeth had surgery to remove the cancer at Hannibal Regional Hospital then underwent chemotherapy at the James E. Cary Cancer Center. She has been in remission twice and is now undergoing chemotherapy again.
Each year in the U.S., an estimated 22,000 women (or one in 72) will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The median age for diagnosis is 63, but ovarian cancer can strike women of any age. Risk factors include a family history of cancer; a personal history of cancer, age over 55 and never having been pregnant.
“Even if the symptoms seem minor, if a woman feels it’s not right, get it checked out,” Maribeth urged. “Women need to be aware of their body. If they have questions, they need to keep pushing to get answers.”
Early diagnosis is the key to better outcomes for ovarian cancer patients. Nationally, the number of ovarian cancer patients has declined in recent years and the National Cancer Institute has increased funding for research on ovarian cancer.
Maribeth credits her family, friends, co-workers and her team at the JECCC with unconditional support.
“The JECCC is wonderful. I feel like I’m walking in to another family,” said Maribeth. “They know me well and know best how to support me. They really do care what happens.”
Maribeth also appreciates being able to have treatments close to home. This allows family members to go with her to appointments and treatments and to enjoy her own home and activities.
While Maribeth works to bring awareness of ovarian cancer to other women, she looks forward to a future that includes better diagnostic tests for other patients. “Research gives me hope that there will be new drugs or new tests that will help other women,” she said. “We’d like to see more people aware of the disease. If it’s caught early, it can be remedied very quickly.”
She is also optimistic about her recovery. “Chemo won’t last forever,” Maribeth explained. “No matter how bad it seems, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t give in. I have good friends and family and I’m not gonna let it win.”
For more information about ovarian cancer, contact the James E. Cary Cancer Center at (573) 406-5811.