Joan Elvin was 49 years old when she was told that she had ovarian cancer.
She was surprised because she had been having symptoms that were annoying, but seemed benign: abdominal bloating, extreme fatigue, and increased gas. Her doctor recommended Beano.
Joan returned when her symptoms persisted. “My doctor said, ‘It’s probably hormones,’ but she conducted a pelvic exam and noticed that one of my ovaries was enlarged. Then an ultrasound revealed a solid mass on my ovary. She said, ‘When I return from the weekend, we’ll discuss the next steps.’”
But precious time had already been lost.
“I returned to work afterward and I was totally freaked out,” she recalled. “I confided in a co-worker who said, ‘I’m a cervical cancer survivor; you need to see a gynecologic oncologist.’” And she got Joan an appointment for the next day.
“I was lucky. It was serendipitous that I’d confided in my co-worker. She was vulnerable and shared her story to help me. I was so glad that she did.”
Joan had the support of her twin sister, Jean. “I never went to one appointment, scan, or chemotherapy appointment alone; she was by my side,” Joan recalled. “There were many times I felt weak and vulnerable. She was my strength and courage. It made a difference in my journey.”
Joan was frustrated to find out that the symptoms she’d been having for weeks – symptoms she’d told her doctor about – were early warning signs. “I’ve always been proactive about my health; I’m a vegetarian, a runner, I haven’t smoked…but cancer doesn’t play by any rules. I was blindsided by ovarian cancer.”
The Early Warning Signs of Ovarian Cancer
Symptoms may include:
- Bloating or increased abdomen size
- Pelvic, back, or abdominal pain, pressure, or cramping
- Feeling full quickly or lack of appetite
- Urgent or frequent urination
- Indigestion, gas, or nausea
Symptoms can also include: pain with intercourse, abnormal vaginal bleeding, constipation, and fatigue. A woman should see her healthcare professional if her symptom(s) are new and unusual, have been occurring almost daily for more than a few weeks, and if the “two Ps,” Persistent and Progressive, describe her symptom(s): It’s not going away, and it’s only getting worse.
Shortly after she beat ovarian cancer, Joan received a second stunning diagnosis: breast cancer.
“I was still healing from my ovarian cancer surgery when I had my annual mammogram,” she said. “I learned that I had invasive breast cancer. I was back in for my mastectomy and months of treatment. I felt like I’d been given two death sentences. After these two diagnoses, I made a pledge: if I survived, I’d devote the rest of my life to help other women know the early warning signs of ovarian and breast cancer.”
And that’s exactly what she did.
In 2004, Joan, Jean, and a group of like-minded women founded the Ovarian & Breast Cancer Alliance (knowthesymptoms.org), an all-volunteer, nonprofit, charitable organization. O&BCA’s mission is to promote lifesaving early detection of ovarian and breast cancer through education and awareness. The organization promises to empower women to be informed advocates for their own health and strives to replace fear with fact.
September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and the Ovarian & Breast Cancer Alliance is holding its 8th annual Teal & Toe Walk for Ovarian Cancer Awareness. The walk, at Magnuson Park on September 22, is open to dogs, as well (tealandtoewalk.org).
“Teal is the official Ovarian Cancer color, and we’ll be turning Magnuson Park teal to increase awareness,” Joan said.
Proceeds from the Teal & Toe Walk support the education and awareness programs of the Ovarian & Breast Cancer Alliance along with supporting early detection research.
Teal & Toe Walk for Ovarian Cancer Awareness
Sunday, September 22, registration at 9:00am, walk at 10:00am
Magnuson Park, Seattle
Walk, doggy costume contest, awards, & more!
During her cancer treatment, Joan also had the constant company of her dog, Hobbes. “Pets just know when a person needs an extra nuzzle,” she said. “He was just a sweetheart. I was never alone.
“Our pets can comfort and support us as we go through treatment.”— Joan Elvin
“Hobbes was a rescue. He was an unbelievably smart Australian cattle dog. He had two moms to protect: my sister and I. He was fiercely loyal, but very kind.
“When I was going through chemotherapy, he’d lay on the floor next to my bed. If I got up, he was right behind me. We called him my ‘nurse.’ He had a job to do. I was never alone. He was just so caring. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight.”
Hobbes has since passed away from canine cancer, but his friend, Calvin, was present at our recent photo shoot and will be walking in the Teal & Toe Walk for Ovarian Cancer Awareness on September 22.
“Once we created the nonprofit, we translated the early warning signs into six languages…early detection of cancer is hard enough, but what if you didn’t speak the language? We do a lot of work with the under-served; with ovarian cancer, we’re all under-served,” Joan said.
There’s no early detection screening test for ovarian cancer (a Pap Test is NOT a test for ovarian cancer). Awareness of symptoms is the key to early detection and early detection is the key to survival. When ovarian cancer is found and treated early, over 90% of women survive.
“Fortunately, with breast cancer, we have the mammogram for an early detection screening tool, women can do self-checks to check their breasts for abnormalities and there are more resources,” Joan said.
“We want women and their healthcare professionals to know the early warning signs. Knowing these early warning signs can make all the difference in the fight against ovarian cancer,” Joan said.
Tears ran down my cheeks as Joan spoke. One of my best friends, Ari, had just received the news that she was cancer-free after a grueling six-month treatment of aggressive breast cancer. I’ve never been prouder of anyone than I was of Ari. She was so strong, so brave, and as much as we teased her about “complaining,” she never complained. Not once. In the midst of her cancer fight, I had my own cancer scare, but I didn’t talk about it. That call from the doctor was terrifying. It was a false alarm, but I’d kept it to myself; I told Joan this as she opened up her heart to me.
“Please, tell people,” she said. “Please share these stories. Women can learn from one another and become better advocates for their health.”
Ari and Joan both had the companionship of their animals through their battles. Ari’s cats, Sullivan and Myra Minx, tried to comfort her, and my dog, Jack, was extra-vigilant around her.
“I experienced significant chest pain and nausea after each chemotherapy treatment, and Sullivan would sit in my lap, put his paw on my heart, and purr,” Ari recalled. “It was so sweet and comforting.”
- Approximately 268,600 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer
- Approximately 2,670 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer
- Approximately 22,530 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer
“Early diagnosis is much easier if you know the warning signs. A friend, 87, had the early warning signs. They did every test imaginable, but no one screened for ovarian cancer. She talked to one of our board members, who said, ‘Ask your doctor for a pelvic exam, the CA125 test, and an ultrasound.”
The friend was stage 3. “She wasn’t given a good prognosis at 87, but she just turned 102! She remarried, goes dancing, and loves to have a toddy, she is an inspiration to all of us” Joan said.
“If even one person sees this and recognizes the early warning signs, and benefits from reading this, it’s all worthwhile.”— Joan Elvin
“In many cases, neither women nor healthcare professionals recognize the symptoms, and it becomes a late-stage diagnosis,” Joan said.
But researchers – including canines – are working to ensure that more diagnoses come at earlier stages.
“Researchers are working with dogs to identify ovarian cancer cells,” Joan said.
Numerous studies have found that dogs can detect cancer cells, including the odor of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are related to the early stages of ovarian cancer. A 2013 study published in the BMC Cancer journal found that dogs had high acuity in detecting ovarian cancer cells. Canine ovarian cancer detection is still in its infancy, and researchers hope to continue to use dogs to determine ways to detect ovarian cancer.
Life for Joan post-cancer is full of love, laughter, friendship, and fun. She celebrated her survival with a group of cancer survivors. “I was blessed to climb to the top of Mount Rainier with them,” she said. “My sister had already climbed it, and she went along, too. The heavens were all in alignment. It was hot and sunny, and we camped on the Ingraham Glacier, around 12,000 feet. The night we summited it was a full moon. Our guide kept on saying, ‘The mountain chooses who gets to go to the summit.’ It was just glorious and we all made it to the top!”
Join us for the Teal & Toe Walk on September 22!
Learn more at tealandtoewalk.org