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Walks for a cure: Local cancer survivor fighting back

| Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2002

Most ovarian cancer survivors don't spend precious time sitting idly by asking themselves, "Why me?" They keep busy doing any number of things to raise awareness about this quiet killer. They fight.

Jane "Penny" Miller of Connellsville is no different.

"Today's women aren't just taking the disease sitting down. They're more vocal. They're fighting," says Miller.

One way Miller is fighting back is by raising money and awareness through participation in the second annual Walk for the Whisper, a Pittsburgh-based fund-raising event scheduled for Sept. 15 in North Park.

The walk is sponsored by the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, a nonprofit organization founded by an ovarian cancer survivor. Gail Hayward, a Florida woman diagnosed with the disease more than 10 years ago, has dedicated her life to raising awareness of ovarian cancer and to promoting education about the disease. This walk is one of the primary ways locally this is done.

"It's really very important (the walk) because every year 23,300 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Of those, almost 14,000 will die," says Miller.

Although survivors of ovarian cancer aren't quiet, the disease itself can be. Ovarian cancer is known as the "whispering cancer" because of the vagueness of its symptoms, which often don't show up until the cancer has reached the advanced stages. Symptoms include pelvic pain and/or abdominal swelling, bloating and indigestion, pelvic pressure and persistent fatigue.

While working as a nurse three years ago, Miller was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Initially, she went to her doctor complaining of backaches and was told she needed to lose 30 pounds. Miller lost the weight and her backaches only got worse. After changing doctors, Miller was sent to Magee-Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh and diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, most cases aren't detected until stages 3 and 4 when the disease has spread. Only 50 percent of these women will survive beyond five years and 70 percent of them will face multiple recurrences.

One of the problems, according to Miller, is a lack of awareness about the disease, not only by patients, but also their doctors. Although Miller never missed a gynecology appointment and had regular Pap smears, she had active cancer for years. In fact, Miller was told that if she had been diagnosed even a few months later, it would have been too late.

Unlike cervical cancer, ovarian cancer can't be detected through a basic Pap smear. There are additional blood tests, including the cancer antigen (CA125) test that can be performed. The problem is the test isn't regularly done and not enough people know to ask for the test.

Even with her background in the medical field, Miller didn't know to ask for one, so how would someone with no medical knowledge know to ask?

Last year, Miller was in remission at the time of the walk. She walked in memory of Chris Cipoletti, a nurse Miller had met in the hospital who passed away one week before the event.

This year is a little different. Miller has had a recurrence of the disease and is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment. But that won't stop her.

"I think I'm still strong enough to do it," says Miller.

After a matching grant, last year's walk raised $50,000 for research, an amazing amount considering only 55 women participated. In addition, the NOCC also used some of the money raised to assist non-insured patients in purchasing anti-nausea medication.

Anyone interested in participating in this year's walk may register for the event on walk day from 8 to 10 a.m. at the red balloon tent at the North Park Boat House. The registration fee for adults is $20; $10 for children 12 and under. The walk will go on rain or shine.

For more information on registration, directions to North Park or information on the walk, log onto www.ovarianpgh.org.

Although the walk will certainly raise money and promote education about the disease on a regional basis, Miller is also concerned about how ovarian cancer is affecting women in Connellsville. That is why in April she established an ovarian cancer survivors support group - the only ovarian cancer support group in Connellsville - for local women battling the disease.

"At first, you're scared. You think you're the only one who has it. You find out how to cope with it, how to enjoy life again. You learn to cope with it," says Miller.

Miller adds that even women who live in a city of Connellsville's size are affected by the disease. She says the support group is averaging one or two newly diagnosed members per month. That concerns her.

"If that many are coming to the group, there is probably double that out there suffering alone," says Miller.

Joining the support group is easy. Anyone interested can do so by simply attending the group's next scheduled meeting. The support group meets from 6 to 8 p.m. the second Wednesday of every month at the Wesley United Methodist Church, 417 S. Pittsburgh St., Connellsville.

In addition to regular meetings, Miller says the group also participates in various survivor-related activities, including the Survivor's Cancer Conference planned for Sept. 22 at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh. The support group is sponsoring a bus to the event for members.

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