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Unsung Heroes Series: Fighting And Spreading Awareness About Ovarian Cancer

Photo of Josh Clement and Diane Germano
Mountain Lake PBS
/
Josh Clement (left) and Diane Germano at a recent Mountain Lake PBS Downton gala.

She is a 44-year-old with a full-time career in public television.  She was healthy – she thought.  But early this year she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Diane Germano   is fighting back, enduring chemotherapy and returning to work, where she teamed with a videographer who had lost his stepmother to ovarian cancer to spread awareness about a disease that takes the lives of thousands of women every year. WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley kicks off our weeklong series on unsung heroes in our communities.

According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women aged 35 to 74.  More than 22,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year and more than 15,000 women will die from the disease.  If diagnosed and treated in its earliest stages, the five-year survival rate is over 90 percent, but only 19 percent of all cases are found in the early stages.  If the cancer progresses to Stage 3 or higher, the survival rate plummets to about 31 percent.

Jay, NY resident and Mountain Lake PBS Major Gifts Coordinator Diane Germano was diagnosed this year.  As she completed chemotherapy, she filmed a mini-documentary on her experience called The Last Drip.  “Symptoms of ovarian cancer can be so vague and mild that it often goes undetected until the later stages. As an otherwise healthy person I was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer at the age of 44 and began intensive intravenous and intraperitoneal chemotherapy treatments two weeks after surgery. This unexpected journey has been a long and difficult one, but one that has redefined me.”  

“I just had not been feeling well and I actually ended up in the Emergency Room because I was doubled over and we thought I had an appendicitis.  They did some tests and it wasn’t that and  they said that I had some fibroids and that I should go see my regular doctor.  So I did.  She kept monitoring me for two months and we decided that a routine hysterectomy was the best thing for me.  And she opened me up and saw the cancer. She took some photos and closed me back up and she sent the photos to my gynecological oncologist. Two days later I met with him and he confirmed Stage 4 ovarian cancer.”

There are no early detection tests for ovarian cancer.  Symptoms are non-specific and can include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, trouble eating or feeling full, and frequent urination.  

Gynecological oncologist Dr. Gamal Eltabbakh has practiced for 25 years and published two textbooks on ovarian cancer.  His book Myths and Facts about Ovarian Cancer is the most popular on the topic at Amazon.com.  He practices at the University of Vermont Health Network in Burlington and Plattsburgh. He is Germano’s physician.  "The main problem with ovarian cancer is that it does not have a set of symptoms that are characteristic to ovarian cancer that do not happen in other types of diseases.”  

Dr. Eltabbakh finds many women  believe routine gynecological tests will detect ovarian cancer.  “Quite often I have patients who come and we diagnose them with ovarian cancer and they say how can I have ovarian cancer, I just had my pap smear and was fine? Pap smear is diagnostic for cervical cancer but it does not pick up ovarian cancer.  So you can have a normal pap smear while having an advanced stage of ovarian cancer.”

Germano, who has no children, says her husband has been very supportive of her efforts to raise awareness about ovarian cancer.  She partnered with videographer Josh Clement to make The Last Drip documentary.   “I’m reminded as I head into my last  treatment that soon someone new will be replacing me in my usual treatment chair. Their journey is just beginning and they will not know the difficulties that lie ahead”  
Josh Clement:   “I would often bring my stepmother Susan, who has now passed away, to her chemo treatments. And she would go through a round of chemotherapy and then she would be in remission for a period of time. And then the cancer would come back and so it would be the same process again.  It’s very emotional for me.”

Both hope the video will make a difference.
Diane:  “Because there’s no real way to diagnose this at an early stage it’s happening to women of all ages.”
Josh:  “It’s possible that somebody might see this video and maybe they’ll be a little bit more pro-active and say, ‘Hey I know my body best. I want, I need a better opinion, or something like that.’  And I think that’s what we’d like to see.”

Feedback from the online posting of The Last Drip is spurring Germano’s efforts to establish a support group for survivors.   “I’ve been working with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and they have chapters throughout the United States. The closest chapter, which is a support group, is in New York City and Long Island.  There’s nothing in Vermont and there’s nothing in the rest of New York state.”
Josh:  “People also need to know that these support groups can be valuable.”
Diane:  “I can remember sitting in treatment and laughing because we’re talking about life. Just something funny that’s happened with someone and it just makes you laugh and you kind of forget about you’re all sitting there getting poison put into your body. It’s amazing how many women actually have gone through a similar situation with ovarian cancer specifically. And in talking with them they too wished that they had some better help and better support.  So as we move forward I hope I can really get something established in the community.”

Dr. Eltabbakh says women respond better when they hear from ovarian cancer survivors like Germano. “Women can identify with a person that they know, for example, or see just an ordinary person that they know that looks very healthy and she tells them her story with ovarian cancer and how it was diagnosed actually at an advanced stage and at no fault of her own.  She was seeing doctors and having cat scans and doing all the right things.  But unfortunately things happen. Then that raises awareness that it can happen to anyone.”

Diane Germano:  “This is a complete life changing experience.”
Germano believes this experience has made her stronger.   "In the beginning I wasn’t very strong about anything just because you go through that moment of ‘Oh my gosh why did this happen to me, you know, I’m a good person, I’m healthy.’  You know, all of those scenarios. I came to realize that I needed to get over that and I needed to be mean and tough and fight this thing because nobody else is gonna fight this battle for me. This is all on me.  There’s nothing that anybody can do.  My doctors can help me and that.  So I learned that I needed to be strong.  I have my moments obviously.  But I’m definitely a stronger person and I’ve come to realize that I have a part of me that wants to be able to help people.  And just, life really is too short and this makes you aware of that.”

In early December, Germano underwent renewed testing to determine if her ovarian cancer has resurfaced and whether she will need to undergo a second round of chemotherapy treatments.

In New York’s Capital Region,  Caring Together has sponsored a Run/Walk for 15 years to raise awareness and research funding.  Its ovarian cancer support group meets on the second Wednesday of each month in Latham.

The Glens Falls Hospital hosts the Rays of Hope support group, which meets on the third Wednesday of each month.

Links to more information:

Caring Together:

http://www.caringtogetherny.org

Rays of Hope:

http://www.glensfallshospital.org/CRWood-Cancer-Center/support-group-schedule.cfm#rays_of_hope

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition:
http://www.ovarian.org/

Ovarian Cancer Canada:
www.ovariancanada.org

Lake Champlain Gynecologic Oncology P.C.  (Dr. Eltabbakh’s practice)
www.lcgo.com

Ovarian Cancer National Alliance:
www.ovariancancer.org

National Cancer Institute:
www.cancer.gov/types/ovarian

American Cancer Society:
www.cancer.org/cancer/ovariancancer/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
www.cdc.gov/cancer/ovarian/basic_info/symptoms.htm

Society of Gynecologic Oncologists
www.sgo.org