Duo joins forces to combat ovarian cancer
By Linda Hutchison
Although September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, two San Diego women are working hard to raise awareness of the disease every month of the year. They approach it from different directions and experiences. One, Joan Wyllie, is a five-year ovarian cancer survivor and the other, Kelly Bethel, M.D., is a researcher and pathologist at Scripps Clinic.
Wyllie’s organization, Nine Girls Ask for a Cure for Ovarian Cancer, is helping fund a new study of ovarian cancer spearheaded by Dr. Bethel. Their common goal is to learn how ovarian cancer evolves, which could lead to earlier detection and treatment. They have already enrolled 20 women in the study who have or have had ovarian cancer and are looking for 20 more.
Ovarian cancer is one of the most difficult forms of cancer to diagnose. There are no reliable screening tests and few symptoms. As a result, the disease is often not detected until its late stages, when survival rates are as low as 40 percent. This makes ovarian cancer the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women and the deadliest of gynecological cancers, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. If ovarian cancer is caught early enough, however, survival rates can increase to 90 percent.
Overall, the mortality rates for ovarian cancer have not improved in the 40 years since the War on Cancer was declared. Each year, approximately 14,000 women in the United States die of the disease. By contrast, the mortality rates for other forms of cancer have improved due in part to earlier detection. Statistics like these bring out the fighting spirit in Wyllie and Bethel.
In fact, when Wyllie was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer in February 2008, she reacted, not with fear, but with determination to learn all she could about the disease. She had been feeling ill for several months and saw no less than nine doctors, who incorrectly told her she had everything from stomach upsets to psychological problems. She finally insisted on laparoscopic (minimally invasive) exploratory surgery and received the dreadful diagnosis – Stage 3C-4 ovarian cancer. She then endured seven hours of surgery followed by several months of chemotherapy.
“I thought of the idea for the group while undergoing horrendous chemo,” she said. “I was so sick, but having survived, I was not afraid.” Before she finished treatment, she has founded her non-profit advocacy group, Nine Girls Ask. The nine are her daughters, her granddaughters and herself. “I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” said Wyllie, who was raised on a dairy farm in the South Bay area of San Diego. She and her husband are both realtors and ran a restaurant, Tomatoes, in Bonita for 10 years.
In the five years since starting Nine Girls Ask, Wyllie has maintained the No Evidence of Disease (NED) state and has found her passion. “Our most important purpose is to raise funds and awareness,” she said. The group holds an annual fundraising dinner (the one planned for Sept. 14 is already sold out with 600 guests). In addition, the group offers one-on-one counseling and sharing of information. “I am always doing research, I want to learn everything about the latest studies and give women hope, let them know they have options, that they can be a partner in their own treatment,” she said.
As a Scripps Clinic pathologist working on several cancer research studies, Dr. Bethel said she was aware of Wyllie’s organization and applied for funding support. With two fellow researchers – Peter Kuhn, a physicist at The Scripps Research Institute and Jim Hicks, a molecular biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York – she had a specific focus in mind for a new study. The group had already been working with a gynecological surgeon looking at and evaluating the cells of women first diagnosed with cancer.
Now, with a more sophisticated, laser-enabled digital microscope and software algorithm developed by Kuhn, Dr. Bethel and her co-researchers can more closely analyze circulating tumor cells in the blood stream. Until now, these have been difficult to see, making this type of cancer harder to diagnose or track.
“There’s been a lot of progress in blood cancers because we can see cells and see whether they are increasing or decreasing,” said Bethel. “Now we can use this new technology and platform to see how solid tumors are growing, even it’s only one in a million, and change therapy if the cancer cells are returning.”
Bethel too has found her passion in fighting cancer. A graduate of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she received her advanced medical training in San Diego in the U.S. Navy. “I love pathology, looking directly at cells, identifying the bad guy, getting power over it,” she said. Now, with the ability to see changes in solid tumors and identify them early, “we have a way to win this war,” she added.
In addition to support from Nine Girls Ask, the study is also being funded by a grant from the physics oncology initiative of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.
Want to Know More?
• Scripps Health
• Gynecologic Cancer Foundation
• Nine Girls Ask
(619) 708-7891 ninegirlsask.com
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Abdominal pressure, bloating or discomfort
Bowel or urinary problems
Nausea, indigestion or gas
Shortness of breath
Unexplained weight loss or gain
Tests to Request:
Annual pelvic/rectal exam
CA-125 blood test (measures cancer
antigen 125, a protein that can be elevated
in patients with certain types of cancers)
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