Ovarian Cancer Survivor Wants Others to Hear Whispers of “Silent Killer”

You may know Phyllis Lang as the wise Queen Guinevere in Sleeping Beauty, or the artist who creates amazing Narnia masks. Her work with the Northwest Children’s Theater has ranged from handling props to playing Lady Montague. But along with a lifelong interest in theater, Phyllis has a mission based on her experience overcoming a devastating disease. Rejecting the long-held notion that ovarian cancer is a silent killer, she believes that heightened awareness of early symptoms is key to increasing the survival rate.

Phyllis grew up with breast cancer on her mind. Her maternal grandmother and mother were diagnosed in their early 30s. Like too many Jewish women, Phyllis’s mother tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation. Phyllis, too, inherited the gene, and her two daughters have a 50/50 chance of also having it.

“When I was 42, I went for my usual Pap and mammogram,” Phyllis said. “The checkup was fine, but soon I felt something in my lower abdomen and began having those nebulous symptoms of bloating and gas.” When her doctor suspected a cyst and suggested waiting, Phyllis wisely saw a specialist immediately. The next day she was in the operating room. The diagnosis was stage 3 ovarian cancer.

The family moved from Florida to Oregon where Phyllis’s parents lived. She credits her doctor, Jeff Menashe, and Compass Oncology (compassoncology.com) with saving her life. Still, after seven years, the cancer was back. Two additional bouts with ovarian cancer followed, and then came a recent battle with breast cancer.

“I went to my internist and said ‘I think I have a urinary tract infection,’ ” Phyllis said, about her second diagnosis. “He gave me a prescription, but I continued to have tremendous pain and bloating. I saw a urologist who put me on antidepres- sants, which I took for a month.” Finally, a CAT scan revealed a large tumor. Surgery and chemotherapy followed.

Helping Others

“I always wanted to do something to help others with cancer, but I didn’t know how,” Phyllis said. “In 2006 I went to the Komen Health Fair and met a young woman named Sherie Hildreth, who was selling hats. She was the first woman I’d met who was my age, had ovarian cancer and was going through what I was going through.”

Hildreth and Cathy Ekerson founded the Sherie Hildreth Ovarian Cancer Foundation (shocfoundation.org) in 2005 to support research and educate women about early detection. Although Hildreth tragically died from her disease in 2010, her foundation continues. Phyllis remains a strong participant and advocate.

She also works with the Ovarian Cancer Alliance for Oregon and Southwest Washington (ovariancan-cerosw.org) in its program Survivors Teaching Students: Saving Women’s Lives. Here, women talk about their experiences with future health professionals including physicians, nurses and pharmacology students. “The program puts the symptoms of ovarian cancer on their radar,” Phyllis said. “So many times, a woman is turned away from a physician.” Those symptoms – bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary urgency or frequency – can mimic other conditions, according to the alliance. They urge women who have symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks to see their gynecologist.

Meanwhile, Phyllis and her husband live in their Cooper Mountain home with Rock Hudson, a boxer/retriever mix. Their two grown daughters are busy with careers and school. Phyllis just finished playing Cinderella’s wicked stepmother in the Northwest Children’s Theater production, and she enjoys gourmet cooking and fine dining.

When asked about advice for women diagnosed with cancer, she stresses the importance of being your own advocate. “Most of all keep moving forward; don’t stop living,” she said. “Find women who are going through the same thing. Break down walls in yourself and accept help. And remember, nobody knows what to say. You have to open yourself up to explaining it’s OK to talk about this and ask questions. When I see a bald woman with a baseball cap in the grocery store, I go up and give her a hug. Sometimes that’s all people want.”

SYMPTOMS OF OVARIAN CANCER

•Bloating

•Pelvic or abdominal pain

•Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

•Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)

See your doctor, preferably a gynecologist, if these symptoms are unusual for you and occur almost daily for more than a few weeks. Experts suggest a combination pelvic/rectal exam, CA125 blood test and a transvaginal ultrasound.

 

Group Offers Support, Information on Ovarian Cancer

 

The Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Oregon and SW Washington is a local nonprofit dedicated to educating the public and future health care professionals about the symptoms of ovarian cancer, supporting women who have ovarian cancer and advocating for federal funds to support ovarian cancer research. oCAosw was founded in 2005 by two local women who met during their ovarian cancer recovery. It is a partner member of the ovarian Cancer national Alliance based in washington, DC.

one of OCAOSW’s hallmark programs in which OCAOSW is involved is the Survivors Teaching Students program. Through STS, as the program is popularly called across the nation and now in some foreign countries, ovarian cancer survivors tell their stories of diagnosis and treatment to all third-year medical students at OHSU as well as to local nursing, pharmacy, physician assistant and naturopath schools.

OCAOSW provides one-on-one peer support through its toll-free phone number 877-682-2679 and is involved in numerous health fairs and events, partnering with organizations like komen oregon, FORCE, Breast Friends and the SHOC Foundation. The organization publishes a monthly online newsletter, maintains a website, and provides information through Facebook and Twitter.

Each year, OCAOSW hosts an “update” on ovarian cancer at which a panel of local gynecologic oncologists and other medical professionals present the latest information on research, treatment and diagnosis.

In honor of national Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in September, OCAOSW hosted a fundraiser called “O-Vary Funny! A Stand-Up Benefit for Ovarian Cancer.” This event attracted over 100 guests who were regaled by the routines of three comedians.

OCAOSW  | ovariancancerosw.orgovariancancerosw.orghttp://ovariancancerosw.org | 877-682-2679

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