River Val­ley Ovar­ian Can­cer Al­liance ed­u­cates, sup­ports fam­i­lies

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - LARA JO HIGHTOWER

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.”

Courtesy photo

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.

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