People in Your Neighborhood: Ovarian cancer survivor Annette McElhiney seeks to provide hope to others

La Jolla resident and ovarian cancer survivor Annette McElhiney is surrounded by paintings she created.
La Jolla resident and ovarian cancer survivor Annette McElhiney is surrounded by paintings she created.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Annette McElhiney is a living beacon of hope.

In 2008, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer at age 67 and given a 25 percent to 35 percent chance to live five years. Having made it past that and then some, McElhiney, now 80, dedicates her time and energy to advocating for patients and survivors and supporting ovarian cancer causes.

“Not enough survivors live long enough to give back. So I feel like I need to do that,” said McElhiney, who lives in the White Sands senior community in La Jolla.

The retired nurse and teacher writes and paints, with proceeds from sales of her work benefiting ovarian cancer research. She volunteers with the San Diego-based Clearity Foundation, which provides the latest information on treatment options. She encourages women to understand the molecular profile of their cancer to find drugs in clinical trials that might help. She also provides emotional support to women and caregivers and more.

As part of her advocacy, McElhiney volunteers with local cancer survivors’ alliances. Through a local chapter, she encourages survivors to speak at medical schools about symptoms and how they feel “so it’s not a medical textbook, but they hear it and see the women.”

She said her presence as “the oldest one” encourages women. “If they see a woman that was diagnosed at 67 and is still alive and moving at 80, it gives them hope that they can do that, too.”

McElhiney encourages women to find ways to let out the feelings they may be experiencing.

“After I was diagnosed, I was depressed, angry, upset and obsessed with having cancer,” she said. “So I decided to paint and, through that, I could express myself. I always wanted to paint but thought I would make a fool of myself because I couldn’t draw. But after the cancer diagnosis, I realized I don’t care if I make a fool of myself.”

Annette McElhiney painted this mixed-media work, which she calls "Madame Resilience."
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

She used her paintings to illustrate a short book called “Althea Re-Balances Her Life,” featuring her alter ego, Althea, and a memoir titled “Realizing My Post Cancer Self.”

“I wanted to give hope,” she said. “Because that was the thing I found was most missing when I had cancer. You read how deadly it is and you’re terrified. So I decided to put my time and effort into that.”

She said Althea enables her to get emotions out that McElhiney herself might not. “As a nurse and as a mother, I felt I had to be strong and stoic. So when people would ask me how I’m doing, I would say ‘Fine.’ But with Althea, I could get me out of me. Althea would say she feels like hell and doesn’t want to do anything. It was a way for me to get my feelings out.”

Calling her creative endeavors “my tool for survival,” McElhiney encourages others to do the same.

“Do something creative. Do something to get you out of yourself,” she said. “There was a time that the only time I forgot I had cancer was when I was painting. ... Every woman needs to find what works for her, and her family should support her in that, even if they think it’s silly. I’m Annette, but I can’t change the fact that I’m an ovarian cancer survivor. That’s a part of me. But I’m no longer angry about it.”

“I wanted to give hope. Because that was the thing I found was most missing when I had cancer.”

— Annette McElhiney

Though she has survived 13 years since her diagnosis, McElhiney said she is not considered “cured” but is “in remission.”

Because many symptoms are considered common to other disorders, diagnosis of ovarian cancer is difficult. Therefore, many people are diagnosed at Stage 3, which is considered “not curable.” Symptoms include abdominal pain, bowel and kidney problems, bloating and getting full quickly because of tissue taking up space in the abdomen.

“But those are some similar symptoms to premenstrual syndrome. It’s almost everything,” McElhiney said. “You could find a lump in your breast; you can’t find a lump in your ovary.”

“Even though there is no cure, it is a manageable disease — more so than when I was diagnosed,” she said. “We’ve made leaps and bounds in the last 10 years, but we have leaps and bounds to go.”

To those fighting the disease, she said: “You know your body better than anyone. So don’t pay attention to all the statistics that you read, because you are your own statistic. They told me I had a 25 percent chance of living five years and I’m starting my 14th year. So that doesn’t define me. There are still a lot of unknowns, so the thing that is so important is to not give up hope.”

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