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God Bless Gilda Radner and My Mom is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month.  I really wonder if ovarian cancer would ever have made it on the cause-of-the-month hit parade, if it weren’t for Gilda Radner.  Sadly, she lost her battle with the disease in 1989.  Back then it seemed ludicrous that the “silent killer” could take the life of such an ebullient woman.  While her somewhat nasal, sharp voice was lost that day, her legacy lives on with memories of riotous laughter, occasional references to Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseannadanna.  I owe Gilda Radner a personal debt of gratitude.  She helped to save my mother’s life.  Six years ago, through some miracle, my mother decided that the stomach pain she was feeling deserved a trip to the doctor.  I think both she and her doctor paid a bit more attention because of Gilda Radner.

Mom had always ignored aches and pains and tossed them off as minor annoyances.  If the pain got really bad, she would pull out a heating pad or pop a couple of Advil.  I think she assumed that whatever pain she had was a normal part of the human condition, and I’m certain that she thought that there was honor and grace in bearing it.  She often quotes the nuns of her childhood when things were tough.  “Offer it up” she’d say.  Something nagged her this time.  The pain was different.  It wasn’t in her stomach like an ulcer (from her Advil habit) might be.  It was lower, and she knew somehow that it needed to be checked.  Shortly after that check-up (about which my siblings and I knew nothing), she called to say that 1) my sister was in labor with her 2nd child, and 2) I wouldn’t be able to reach my parents at home the next day because she was going to have surgery.  In a fashion that is so typical of my mother, she slipped in the part about the surgery just after she told me that my niece Olivia was about to be born.  She might as well have told me that she was going to Stop & Shop to buy milk.  She went on to explain that the surgery had been planned for later that month, but the doctor’s office had called on Friday and told her to come in Monday morning.  “They had some scheduling issues, I guess”, she said.  “They’re having a gynecological oncologist do the surgery.  The regular surgeon must not be available.”  Yup, just scheduling issues. 

That was the beginning of my mom’s journey into and thankfully through the world of ovarian cancer.  After the surgery and chemotherapy, she was declared cancer free and has remained so for 5 years.  That day was also the moment, for me, when I went from being a child in her life to truly being a grown up.  I think she’d thought of me as a grown up for many years (I had 4 children after all), but I still thought of myself as her child.  When hit in the face with her mortality, I also had to face my own mortality.  Was there anything that allowed the cancer to take hold and grow in her body?  How could I learn what it was, help her and help to protect myself, my sisters and my daughters?  As much as my mother has always been stalwart in tough situations, she has accepted many things passively.  There was no way I was going to take a passive approach to my well-being.  From that moment on, my generally healthy lifestyle shifted into a higher gear.

As I think about my mother’s fight against ovarian cancer, there are some “unknowns” and some “knowns”. 

The Unknowns:

-       Were there “rogue” cells in my mom for years waiting to turn cancerous?

-       Did years of poor nutrition, overloaded with synthetic foods and diet products plant the seed?

-       Did 6 formula-fed children make her odds better or worse?

-       Was the ovarian cancer related to her sister’s “female problems” or the benign breast lump found years earlier?

-       Was this the beginning of a family trend?

The Knowns:

-       I tested negative for the BRCA1 gene

-       My pelvic ultrasounds have been negative each year

-       I eat a nutritious diet, low on inflammation causing foods and high on antioxidants

-       I’ve learned the signs of ovarian cancer:

  • Abdominal pressure or bloating.  Enlarged abdomen or waistline
  • Constantly feeling full or loss of appetite
  • Pelvic discomfort or pain
  • Indigestion, gas or nausea that sticks around
  • Constipation or other changes in bowel habits
  • Low back pain
  • Lack of energy

Whether you have some of these exact symptoms or others that concern you, see your doctor and ask if it might be ovarian cancer.  Without being excessively paranoid, think about sources of potential carcinogens and other potentially harmful chemicals in your life and make a plan to get rid of them.  And as always, pay attention to your body.  Like my mom, you'll know first when something isn't as it should be.  

Gilda Radner helped to make us all more aware of ovarian cancer.  We owe it to her, my mom and all of the other women who have fought against this disease to learn the signs and symptoms.  This month, when you see a teal ribbon, let it remind you to check yourself for symptoms and tell a friend what signs she should check.  For more information on ovarian cancer awareness, visit  For more about Gilda Radner and her fight with ovarian cancer, check out her book It's Always Something

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