When people talk about ovarian cancer as a “silent” killer, both Barbara Youngquist and Pat Liedtke nod in agreement.
Youngquist, 66, of Rock Island, and Liedtke, 65, of East Moline, understand well the strong words and emotions associated with that particular type of cancer. Both have volunteered as “teal warriors” with the Rock Island-based NormaLeah Foundation and plan to do what they can to increase awareness of the disease, the most common of all gynecological cancers. (Teal is the nationally recognized color for ovarian cancer awareness and support.)
Ovarian is a particularly deadly form of cancer because there is no reliable screening test, it’s not easily detected and it’s difficult to treat. Many women still believe a Pap smear test will detect the cancer, but it does not. That screening is used to detect cervical cancer.
Youngquist was diagnosed with stage 1 ovarian cancer in 1995, at the age of 49. She is a 17-year survivor and feels driven to share what she believes is a life-saving message to other women. “The Lord really has helped me through this, and I think I must be here for a reason. That is to help others,” she said.
Liedtke was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in 2011 and is just now beginning to feel better. She had surgery last summer, followed by months of chemotherapy. Activism in a cause such as ovarian cancer awareness aids her recovery, she said.
“It helps to distract the brain to be doing something like this. A year ago, even January or February of this year, I didn’t think I’d be walking in a parade in East Moline.”
Jodie Kavensky, the executive director of the NormaLeah Foundation, is the daughter and niece of two women who died of ovarian cancer. She hopes the foundation she founded in 2008 after the death of her mother will accomplish for ovarian cancer what the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization has done for breast cancer survivors.
The mammogram is an effective screening tool for breast cancer, there are increasingly effective ways to treat the disease and there is wide public knowledge of the link between the color pink and breast cancer care. Partly as a result of all the attention, death rates for the disease have been declining since 1990.
Advocates for ovarian cancer awareness hope for similar results. If ovarian cancer is detected early, there is a 92 percent chance of being cured. But some 70 percent of the cases are not diagnosed until after the disease has spread, Kavensky said.
About one in every 72 American women will contract the cancer, most after the age of 50, according to the website womenshealth.gov, a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Beat the Big O campaign set for September in the Quad-Cities coincides with National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. The campaign features the BEAT acronym, which stands for: Bloating that is persistent, Eating Less and feeling fuller, Abdominal pain and Trouble with your bladder and bowels.
Area teal warriors have distributed BEAT mountable mirror cards to doctors’ offices, boutiques, beauty salons, nail salons and other places with a primarily female clientele.
“Our BEAT mirror card teaches and empowers women to recognize early warning signs,” Kavensky said.
Liedtke had an older sister who died of ovarian cancer in 2005. Thus, she was on alert when, while on vacation with her husband in Texas, she had an upset stomach and digestive issues. Still, all of that could have been explained by rigors of travel, she said.
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“My problems would clear up and then start again,” she explained. After returning home, she sought medical help and a problem was found in her reproductive system. She reported to an oncologist at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria and underwent surgery in July 2011. That was followed by a chemotherapy regimen. She has chosen to continue with a maintenance program that calls for a low monthly dose of the drugs.
An avid gardener with an acre of flowers, shrubs and landscaping at her home, the lifelong East Moline resident said she has felt “pretty good” for about two months.
She will march in this weekend’s Labor Day parade in her hometown with a group of friends, and her husband has agreed to inflate teal-colored balloons for the event. Some of the balloons will be passed out to children along the route, she added.
Liedtke has retired after a nursing career, including a time when she supervised nurses at the Oak Glen Home in rural Coal Valley. She used to “beat herself up” when her cancer was detected, “but, you know, there’s no easy answer to this. It just mimics so many other illnesses,” she said.
Her cancer activism is heartfelt.
“I just want some way to find these girls before they get to stage 3 of the cancer,” she said.
A flight attendant for United Airlines, Youngquist retires today after a 26-year career during which she was based out of Chicago. She sought medical help in early 1995 because she was having night sweats, which can be part of a woman’s experience during menopause.
However, the doctor couldn’t accommodate her schedule at first. Then one day in January it snowed 8 inches. A nurse called: An appointment time had opened up, so could she come in? Youngquist insisted that if she was going to brave the snow, she wanted to get a full-fledged physical. That’s when a large mass was detected in her pelvis. It was the size of a small football.
Within three days, she’d undergone surgery for stage 1 ovarian cancer at University Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City.
Before the surgery, she said she had no pain, nothing that seemed out of the ordinary. Nor did she have any family history of the cancer.
“I didn’t catch it. But I feel the Lord’s hand was involved,” she said.
Youngquist feels that society understands the disease better than it did in the ‘90s. There is much more patient support today in this region, including at Gilda’s Club Quad-Cities, through the NormaLeah Foundation and via the nonprofit organization Cancer Can Kiss My A**, or CCKMA, which was founded by cancer patient Angie DeWilfond of Moline.
But too much misunderstanding continues, and Youngquist is on a mission to help improve that. For one thing, she endorses the BEAT ovarian cancer mirror cards.
“You know, I’ve always had a touchy stomach, and so I wouldn’t think much about it if my stomach hurt.
“It really is the silent killer,” she said.