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Turning Silence into Hope

September 25, 2008

When my wife reminded me about the walk at Drake Park on Sunday, I said, “Yeah, sure,” my head still in the fog of the financial tsunami featuring the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the government bailout of AIG, money-market fund losses, and Treasury Secretary Paulson’s plan for the government to buy $700 billion of toxic mortgage-backed securities. I couldn’t think about the meaning of a charity walk while the economy was teetering in the midst of the worst crisis since the Great Depression.

            Shabbat came after the stock market recovered and a calm sanity seemed to reappear. On Sunday morning, we picked up our friend, Beverly Yost, who had asked if we could join her in the Janis Warren Walk to raise money to battle ovarian cancer. I had sent a donation but was not looking forward to getting up early on a chilly, cloudy morning to walk. I had silently accepted, however, knowing this was just a little mitzvah and certainly not worth making a fuss about.

            I knew that this was the first walk of its kind but understood little of ovarian cancer except that one of our dearest friends is a survivor and that her sister has been suffering for months from the same awful disease. When we arrived at Drake Park on Sunday, September 21st, the sky was gloomy but the volunteers were spirited as they passed out shirts, ribbons, bagels, donuts, coffee, fruit, and had ordered pizza for after the walk.

            I enjoyed the food and the commitments of the walkers and volunteers but was still nonchalant until the Warren family spoke about the horrors of ovarian cancer, known as “the Silent Killer.” As Janis’ son-in-law Danny, daughter Stephanie, and husband Larry Warren began to speak, the wind died down and the sun came out. The weather became nice but the facts of ovarian cancer are anything but. Over 22,000 women were diagnosed with the disease last year and over 15,500 will die this year. The chances of women getting ovarian cancer are about 1 in 67 but greater for white women over 55 and even higher for Ashkenazi Jews. Most importantly, there is NO SCREENING TEST for ovarian cancer: no Pap Smear, no blood test, nothing.

            If you don’t know whether you have ovarian cancer, what are the signs? Some signals are abdominal or pelvic discomfort, persistent gastrointestinal distress such as gas and indigestion, frequent urination, unexplained weight gain or weight loss, pelvic or abdominal swelling and bloating, and persistent fatigue. These systems are so common in women that it becomes difficult to tell if you’re just stuck in unnecessary fear or if you really have cancer: that is the terrible dilemma.

            Janis Warren was an 11-year survivor of breast cancer but she walked daily, watched her health rigorously, and had routine checkups. When she started getting “vague” abdominal discomfort and occasional stomach cramps, she thought it was just signs of getting older and didn’t complain. By the time ovarian cancer was detected, it had already spread. Chemotherapy, radiation, two surgeries, and a colostomy kept her going for awhile, but after 18 months of the war on cancer, she died. Her last words to her family were, “You will be just fine when I am gone.”

            The heart-breaking words and tears at the Sunday walk from her husband Larry and daughter Stephanie on Sunday prove what the www.janiswalk.org website claims, “We are not fine.” The website goes on: “We are not fine to think that her death might have been preventable had there been a reliable screening exam. We are not fine to think that her death might be without gain. We are not fine to think that other women have and will have the same struggles she did—the debilitating course of the cancer followed by a premature death.”

Rather than staying silent and “moving on,” Janis’ son, Dr. Michael Warren, an obstetrician/gynecologist in New York, son Jeffrey, daughter Stephanie, and husband Larry decided to take action. They planned a walk to raise money for the awareness of ovarian cancer and to benefit a more urgent cause: to support Dr. Michael Tainsky of the Karmanos Cancer Institute and his research to develop a simple blood test to detect ovarian cancer at an early stage when it is much more treatable. Having a good, reliable early detection test could save thousands of lives. How many hours of agony and grief could be spared?

Dr. Tainsky’s research has immense potential to accurately measure markers specific to ovarian cancer. He said at the walk that the tests he and his team of researchers have developed are already about 75% accurate. But they are pushing to make the test so accurate that it will be ready for FDA testing and approval within a year or two. He is thankful for the Warrens’ help as well as the Gail Purtan Ovarian Cancer Fund, but the researchers need more money to continue.  The U.S. government is certainly not going to have any money for this type of cancer research. It is too preoccupied with its own financial debt obligations.

The Janis Warren 2008 walk raised over $50,000 before the walk began. But it is so easy to forget a good cause after the big event. And that we can’t do. The goal of this walk was and continues to be deadly serious. We must turn silence into hope, fear into action, uncertainty into going to your doctor and asking questions. When you feel the symptoms of discomfort, swelling, nausea, unusual weight gain or loss, and fatigue, don’t wait. Get to a doctor and ask him about ovarian cancer.

Make the loss of Janis Warren a gain for other women around the world. Go to www.janiswalk.org or to www.karmanos.org and donate what you can. Hopefully, by the time of the Janis Warren Walk next year, the early detection blood test will be radically improved and the money raised will be substantial. Let’s take the grief-stained tears of the Warren family and do everything we can to stop the path of the silent killer.    

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