It is news most women fear.
In June 1998, Ellen Favreau of Brainerd got a call from the Mayo Clinic. Her lab results were back, the oncologist informed her.
Yes, he said, matter of fact, she had ovarian cancer.
It was devastating news.
"I was so shocked, I literally tried to catch my breath on the telephone," said Favreau. "I (felt I) had pretty much been given a death sentence. You think you're going to die."
Sobbing, she curled up with one of her beloved Russian wolfhounds on her bedroom floor. Then the 46-year-old elementary school teacher got angry. Real angry. She was furious.
"I made the decision right there that I wasn't going to let this thing kill me," she explained.
Favreau was diagnosed with Stage 1C ovarian cancer, the first of four stages that are used to determine how far the cancer had spread. The cancerous tumors were discovered on the outside of her ovaries but had not yet spread to any other organs. It was after undergoing a hysterectomy that she learned she had ovarian cancer. She had no family history of the disease. A month later, she started chemotherapy.
Favreau had the subtle but persistent symptoms associated with ovarian cancer, but like most women, she attributed her aches and pains to factors other than cancer. Those symptoms included abdominal swelling, a bloated feeling, abdominal and pelvic discomfort, back pain, fatigue, and other gastrointestinal symptoms.
Most women don't consult their gynecologists early enough when they have symptoms of ovarian cancer. As a result, when they are diagnosed, 75 percent of patients have ovarian cancer that has spread to other abdominal organs, according to "Myths & facts about ovarian cancer," by Dr. M. Steven Piver and Dr. Gamal Eltabbakh.
This year an estimated 23,400 women of all ages will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer nationwide, and an estimated 13,900 will die. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer among women in the United States.
Early detection gives a woman a nearly four times greater chance of survival. There is no early diagnostic test for ovarian cancer, and no consistently reliable and accurate screening test to detect it exists. Pap smears do not detect ovarian cancer. And unlike other forms of cancer, most people simply aren't aware of it.
"This is a topic nobody wants to talk about," said Favreau. "Let's face it. Do you want to sit around and talk about your ovaries?"
A few weeks into the school year in the fall of 1998, Favreau held a meeting to inform her second grade students and their parents at Pequot Lakes Elementary School that she was battling ovarian cancer. She was undergoing chemotherapy, which caused her to lose her hair.
Many students asked her if she was going to die. She told them no, that doctors were giving her medications to fight the disease. After she lost her hair, students told her they preferred she wear her cool hats and scarves, rather than her wigs.
Eventually, Favreau's hair grew back, and she has been cancer-free for almost three years. But battling ovarian cancer made her realize how little information about the disease was out there for women. She discovered the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition at its Web site, www.ovarian.org, and was encouraged by its members to become involved.
She is now chapter president of the Northern Minnesota Division of the NOCC. After nine years as a teacher -- four years at Pequot Lakes Elementary -- Favreau is taking time off from teaching, in part, to travel throughout northern Minnesota to educate women about ovarian cancer, distributing literature from the NOCC. She also plans to substitute teach within the Brainerd School District this year and will likely return to college to receive her master's degree in school administration.
In many ways, it's hard for this teacher to stop teaching.
"I hope that more women will become more educated, that they won't feel it's all in their heads," she explained. "That they won't lightly dismiss symptoms that are continuous."
Favreau is looking for more people interested in becoming NOCC members and volunteers. If you would like more information about ovarian cancer, contact Favreau at 828-8500 or call the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition hotline at 1-888-OVARIAN.
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