Often out of the spotlight, ovarian cancer victims are gaining a voice
As Judy Slames crochets knit caps and blankets in her Prescott Valley home for Arizona chemotherapy patients who have lost their hair, she tries to take her mind off of her own plight.
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2004 at age 62, Slames gives back to fellow survivors by donating hats locally and to her doctor's office in Phoenix.
"I've always enjoyed sewing, and when I needed 'chemo hats,' I couldn't find any that I really liked," Slames said from her living room this past week. "After I finished chemo, there was a pattern that came out in one of my sewing magazines, so I sent for it. I don't know how many hundreds of chemo hats I've made."
Despite her struggles, Slames remains active at church and now is tackling an even bigger endeavor.
Today, Slames is the coordinator for a new ovarian cancer survivor support group in Prescott that will begin conducting regular meetings every second Tuesday from noon to 2 p.m. at the Community Pregnancy Center of Prescott, 1124 E. Gurley St.
In October, Margaret Hoeft, an ovarian cancer survivor from Tucson, and her best friend, Mary Curran-Perkins of Prescott, helped found the fledgling group. Starting Jan. 12, survivors can bring their lunches and share stories, information and ideas about their condition.
Slames said ovarian cancer is dubbed "the silent killer" because most women don't realize they have it. In fact, statistics show only one in four women with the cancer survives more than five years, partly because it is not detected soon enough.
"At first I thought maybe I had a urinary tract infection," said Slames, who has had the cancer for five years. "I went into the doctor for my regular check-up and almost didn't say anything to him. And, right away, he did a pelvic exam and felt a mass, and that was the beginning."
Doctors used to think ovarian cancer primarily afflicted women in their 60s, but they have determined that it strikes those who are much younger and older. That's why it is so important for all women to get regular check-ups from a physician.
Jo Ann Howell, a 73-year-old breast cancer survivor from Prescott, is one of those who had an unexpected diagnosis in September and later had surgery and chemotherapy. Only two weeks before being diagnosed, Howell played 18 holes of golf with her children.
"You try to stay as active and upbeat as you can," said Howell, who still does light workouts at a fitness center three days a week. "You go day-to-day."
Survivor Ginny Hinsler of Prescott agrees, but she has a slightly different take.
"You shouldn't feel guilty if you're not positive - I think it's the pits," said Hinsler, who's been in remission for four years. "It's good to vent. It's important to deal with this realistically and take the good with the bad."
Slames was adopted and has no knowledge of her family history, which made her diagnosis difficult. Both men and women can carry the ovarian cancer gene and pass it to their children.
She has gone into remission before, but the cancer has come back four times. Her most recent recurrence happened this month when a routine blood scan revealed more cancerous tumors.
Slames soon went into surgery and got out of the hospital on Dec. 11. This time, surgeons excised a tumor near her stomach area rather than treat it with radiation.
After her first surgery in 2004, Slames had six months of treatment and remained healthy for a little more than a year. She later had another round of chemotherapy and developed complications with Valley Fever and the shingles. It's been a constant battle ever since.
Nonetheless, every time she's gone into remission, Slames said she's been more fortunate than many of the women who have the cancer because she's had a decent quality of life in between flare-ups.
This most recent bout has tried her emotions, however. She heads into her third round of chemotherapy this month.
"It's depressing, discouraging and hard to deal with," Slames said as she choked back tears. "You always have it hanging over your head."
Survivor Karen Salter, 64, of Prescott, who was diagnosed in November 2008, said chemo is one of the toughest parts of treatment for women because of the loss of their hair.
"Body image is what you're conscious of," she said. "You go to bed with your husband and he has more hair on his head than you do."
Van Slames, Judy's husband and full-time caregiver, said he was in disbelief when he first heard about his wife's diagnosis. Van now does most of the cooking and cleaning at the couple's home and regularly takes Judy to the doctor for tests.
The Slames agree that if ovarian cancer-stricken women do not have a support system from a spouse, friend or family members, their likelihood for survival diminishes rapidly.
"This cancer does take her energy way down, and it's really debilitating," Van said. "I have to put Judy first, but you can't forget about yourself. You have to let her know once and a while that you're human, too, and you're doing your best. But we've gotten through it, and I admire her courage and conviction. She's my hero."
To obtain more information about the Prescott support group's meetings, call Slames at 775-4125. A reservation is not required to attend and new members are welcome.
Those who wish to donate to the cause for finding a cure for this cancer, visit the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund's website at www.ocrf.org or Ovations for the Cure of Ovarian Cancer at www.ovationsforthecure.com.
For insight into free counseling and education services for individuals and families affected by the cancer, call OCRF's toll-free "Hope Line" at 1-877-684-6731.