River Valley Ovarian Cancer Alliance educates, supports families
Ten years ago, Blanche West, founder of the River Valley Ovarian Cancer Alliance, sat at the kitchen table with her sister-in-law, who had recently been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“She said, ‘Please, don’t let my death be in vain,’” says Liz Martin, RVOCA director. “‘Will you do what you can to educate women?’ So, being the tenacious school teacher that she is, [West] did exactly that.”
West attempted to call local doctors and medical centers to gather information about ovarian cancer, but it wasn’t until she contacted a nationally affiliated ovarian cancer association in Dallas that she was able to start collecting materials about ovarian cancer detection, prevention and treatment.
“A common saying is, ‘It’s the disease that whispers, so listen,’” says Martin. “So many women die of it because there’s not a diagnostic test yet. Most women think it’s caught in a pap smear, but that only tests for cervical cancer. Women think that if they’ve had a hysterectomy, they can’t get ovarian cancer, but, if you’ve ever had ovaries, you can still get ovarian cancer. This disease can hide itself as other things going on with the female body, and so many times, a physician may discount it as, ‘Oh, you’re going through the change,’ or ‘You have IBS,’ or something else. It’s important to find a doctor that listens to you. If the symptoms persist for more than a couple of weeks, you have to have a doctor that will act.”
Martin says that the signs of ovarian cancer can include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, urinary issues and difficulty eating or feeling full quickly. A diagnosis of ovarian cancer is most often done through a transvaginal ultrasound and a CA-125 blood test.
When West discovered how difficult it was to get information about ovarian cancer, says Martin, she became determined to help educate women.
“She wrote a letter to the editor [of the local newspaper] and said, ‘I’m going to call a meeting. I’ve reserved a room at the library. Anyone whose life has been affected by ovarian cancer, please come.’ Her husband and two ladies from Sallisaw were the only ones to show up at that first meeting.”
Martin showed up at the second meeting.
“The letter just touched me. I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something I could do to help this lady. I had a neighbor who was misdiagnosed and died at 42, and my daughter was the same age. I wanted to do something to help.”
Over the last 10 years, she says, the group has grown exponentially.
“Every time we turn around we find somebody
who knew a sister, a mother, a daughter, a wife who has had ovarian cancer.”
Today, the RVOCA partners with Reynolds Cancer Support House to help assist women undergoing ovarian cancer treatment and their families.
“We provide gas cards, rent, utility money … anything we can do to help support someone who is paying a lot of medical bills,” says Martin. “As long as they are registered clients with Reynolds House, we can help them. We believe in keeping money as local as possible.” The RVOCA also funds the
salary of a social worker at Reynolds Cancer Support House who can lead support groups for those women experiencing gynecological cancers.
RVOCA remains committed to education and sponsors a free lunch event twice a year where speakers report on the latest information in the field of ovarian cancer research.
“We don’t have a staff; we’re all volunteers,” says Martin. “We have a storage space but no offices. All of this is done out of the front seats of our cars and at dining room tables.” The organization only has two sources of revenue: The first is memorial gifts in honor of women who were involved with the RVOCA. The second is its annual fundraiser, Teal Night in Tahiti. Teal is the traditional color signifying support for ovarian cancer awareness.
“One of our survivors
was sitting around one day and she thought, ‘We should try a fundraiser,’” says Martin. “Our first was six years ago, and we thought we could get a hundred people — and we sold out at 350, almost immediately. We had to move it to the [Fort Smith] Convention Center. This year, we’ve sold between 900 and 1,000 tickets already.”
Martin says that the $65 ticket price is kept low on purpose so that the event is accessible to more people. The dress is casual for the same reason.
“You should come like you’re on vacation at the beach — sundresses and tropical shirts,” she says. “Very easygoing, very relaxed. We’ll be recognizing survivors all night long. They’re given purple and teal double orchid leis, so that everyone that sees them that night knows they’re a survivor. We have
a video of the ladies that we’ve lost as our moment of remembrance. We don’t want it to be somber, but we have to remember why we’re there.”
The night will also feature live music by the band Ultra Suede and games with, says Martin, “some fantastic prizes” that include a donated trip.
Meanwhile, the group continues its meetings on the first Tuesday of every month.
“We’re not exactly a support group; we’re more about awareness and education,” says Martin. “But we do offer support for families and survivors. We had 27 people at our meeting the other night. Unfortunately, we do lose people sometimes, but their families want to continue to be a part of us.”
The River Valley Ovarian Cancer Alliance will celebrate its 10-year anniversary at Teal Night in Tahiti at the Fort Smith Convention Center on Aug. 19.