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Philadelphia area widower to walk to share ovarian cancer message

By The Philadelphia Inquirer
Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 4:46 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — It happened so fast.

In February 2011, Joan Brown seemed to be in perfect health. In March, she began feeling tired and listless. In April, an ultrasound of her abdomen found a tumor on an ovary. In May, she had surgery to remove both ovaries as well as her uterus.

“They got out everything possible,” says her husband, Dave. “All that was left were microscopic traces.”

Joan's doctor at Lankenau Medical Center had warned her that her form of ovarian cancer was aggressive. He was right. In June, as Joan was considering chemotherapy, the cancer returned with a vengeance, and a new tumor took root.

Joan faced a dire choice. She could begin chemo in the hope it would tame the tumor, or she could transfer to hospice care.

On Aug. 1, 2011, she died at 58, another victim of the “silent disease,” so-called because its symptoms are so varied and subtle.

Dave Brown was devastated. After visiting relatives in Ohio for consolation, he returned via a route that took him to Northwestern Pennsylvania. He and Joan, avid walkers and members of the Liberty Bell Wanderers, a local chapter of the American Volkssport Association, had planned to go hiking there before she fell ill. Brown decided to walk those same paths, partly to relieve his grief, partly in memory of Joan.

Now Brown, 61, has another walk in mind, a very long walk, again in honor of his late wife. On Feb. 28, he will set out from Atlantic City, N.J., intending to walk nearly 3,000 miles across the United States. He plans to walk about 14 miles a day, at a pace of about 4 mph, and to finish Oct. 12 in San Francisco.

Brown spent eight days planning the route, which will follow U.S. Route 40, the Old National Road, as far as St. Louis, where he will pick up U.S. Route 50. Brown has been fascinated by the Old National Road for years.

A while back, Joan, aware of his interest, gave him a book about the highway, which was conceived by George Washington and implemented by Thomas Jefferson to help open the western frontier.

Dave, who attended the Naval Academy, met Joan on Halloween in 1970 after Navy had played Notre Dame in Philadelphia. They were married in 1975, and after Dave fulfilled his Navy obligation by serving as a carrier transport pilot for six years, they moved to Collegeville, buying a two-story colonial house in which Dave still lives.

Brown, who specializes in information technology, worked for Lukens Steel in Coatesville for 20 years, then took a job at Vanguard.

Brown retired from Vanguard in June. Since July, he has been training hard and regularly. Every day, he walks three hours, or cycles three hours, or works out at the gym two hours, including an hour of knee exercises.

The cross-country walk is a way to grieve, Brown admits, but he also has a higher purpose, to spread word about ovarian cancer. He hopes to raise $110,000 for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. So far, he has collected $4,000 from family, friends, and colleagues at Vanguard.

“I want to urge women: Listen to your body,” Brown says. “If you begin feeling symptoms such as abdominal pressure, bloating, nausea, indigestion, fatigue, and backaches, go see a doctor. It's better to deal with it sooner than later.”

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