Kathy McGovern is an ovarian cancer survivor. She and her mother have three significant things in common: both had ovarian cancer. Both had common symptoms of the disease. And both were told by their doctors that their symptoms were nothing to worry about.
In McGovern’s case, she was suffering from overwhelming fatigue. But that didn’t concern her primary care doctor, who later said there was nothing unusual about a tired 52-year-old woman. About 20 years earlier, McGovern says, her mother’s belly suddenly swelled. “It was enormous. And the doctor said, ‘Well, Eleanor, you’ve finally gotten fat like the rest of us,’ and sent her home.”
Within months, McGovern’s mother died of ovarian cancer. And there, the similarities end. McGovern has marked 12 years as an ovarian cancer survivor, making her a member of an exclusive, but growing, club.
McGovern is grateful to a long list of people she credits with helping her reach that mark, starting with her mother. Her mother’s death inspired McGovern to educate herself, and to be vigilant about her own health, having regular pelvic ultrasounds and screening blood tests. “I knew it (ovarian cancer) can run in families, and I was determined I was not going to let it kill me.”
She’s also grateful to the late actor Gene Wilder. After his wife, comedian Gilda Radner, died in 1989 of ovarian cancer that went undiagnosed for months, Wilder launched Gilda’s Club to raise awareness about the disease. McGovern subscribed to the Gilda’s Club newsletter, and in one edition she saw a list of ovarian cancer symptoms. And there, on the list along with the symptoms she had memorized– bloating, pelvic pain, and feeling full while eating–was extreme fatigue.
McGovern had missed her regular ultrasound and blood test that year because her gynecologist had died suddenly. And fatigue isn’t always included among common ovarian cancer symptoms. But when she saw that list, McGovern scheduled an ultrasound immediately. She vividly recalls the day—a Thursday afternoon –when the ultrasound revealed a 10-centimeter tumor. A nurse practitioner at her gynecologist’s office immediately contacted Dr. Daniel Donato, a specialist in surgery for gynecologic cancers, at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers. “She told me, ‘He’s wonderful. And he’s going to see you Monday.’ ”
After the tumor was removed, McGovern had chemotherapy. “Dr. Donato somehow had a protocol where I only needed three sessions. I was bald but I wasn’t nearly as tired as I had been when the tumor was there. From day one, Dr. Donato was fantastic. His superlative skills as a surgeon are legendary, and his intuitive approach to encouraging me throughout the recovery, and the many years of surveillance afterwards, should be a mandatory class for every gynecological oncologist.”
And then, three years later, came another blow: McGovern was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of chronic myeloid leukemia. Her leukemia has been in remission for nine years, and for that, she credits Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers hematologist Alan Feiner, MD. “He’s the most meticulous, detailed, darling, wonderful oncologist. I can’t speak highly enough of him. At every appointment with him, it’s clear he wants to treat every part of my health that will make me stronger and happier. What a jewel he is.”
When McGovern reached the 5-year mark as an ovarian cancer survivor, Dr. Donato threw a party for her. At her 10-year anniversary, the party grew to include an entire Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers office, and flowers sent by Dr. Donato.
Awareness of ovarian cancer has grown significantly since cancers in McGovern’s mother and Gilda Radner went undiagnosed until it was too late. But because ovarian cancer is rare– about 22,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, compared with 300,000 new cases of breast cancer—and because it remains difficult to diagnose, McGovern says educating the public about the disease is, for now, the best way to add members to her ovarian cancer survivors club.
She’s doing her part, even going to public events to hand out information. “The number one thing you hear is ‘I don’t have to worry, I just had a pap smear,’ “ — a response that makes McGovern crazy. Pap smears, she points out, detect cervical cancer, not ovarian cancer.
But for a woman who has beaten cancer twice, that kind of response doesn’t discourage. It just makes her more determined.