Local survivor: 'Be aware of ovarian cancer symptoms'

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Wyndmoor resident Betsy Wallace on her deck overlooks the home of her neighbor and friend, Ella, who died of ovarian cancer. Ella guided Wallace through her diagnosis and treatment. (Photo by Barbara Sherf)

by Len Lear

“The problem with ovarian cancer is that there are usually no really obvious symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage,” says Betsy Wallace, 68, of Wyndmoor, who is now celebrating 10 years since she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and began two years of horrific chemotherapy treatments. “I never thought this (10 years of survival) would happen. I know a lot of women who, like me, waited too long to go to a doctor.

“No one really wants to go to a doctor,” said Wallace in a Zoom interview last week, “so we tend to self-diagnose and self-treat, and by the time you finally go to a doctor, it may be too late. I know of a case where a woman did not finally seek medical treatment until one year after the first symptoms. I waited six weeks, and by then I was at stage 3-C, which means it was already into my lymphatic system.” ( Wallace's mother died of cancer Oct. 31, 2010, three months after Wallace's own diagnosis.)

Wallace, an area facilitator for Survivors Teaching Students® (STS), a program sponsored by the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance, feels this is a good time to alert women to be on the lookout for symptoms since September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Although the symptoms may not be obvious and the disease is difficult to diagnose, Wallace says the most common symptoms are bloating, feeling full quickly, abdominal pain and urgency or frequency of urination.

By learning about possible warning signs and recognizing unexplained changes in their bodies, women can increase their likelihood of detecting ovarian cancer in its earliest stages, when treatments are most effective and there are usually more options available .

According to plannedpanenthood.org, about one in 75 people who are born female will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer at some point in their lifetime. It’s a type of cancer that mostly affects people later in life, usually after menopause.  

Ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest cancer for women. About 21,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer yearly, and 14,000 die from the disease each year in the U.S. About three in four women with ovarian cancer live for at least one year after diagnosis. Almost half (46.2%) of women with ovarian cancer are still alive at least five years after diagnosis.

Some things that can put a woman at a higher risk for ovarian cancer include being over 55 years of age, a family history of breast, gynecological (including ovarian) or colon cancer, a personal history of breast cancer, etc.

Wallace, who was once an attorney for the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, was born in Chestnut Hill Hospital. She grew up in nearby Oreland and Erdenheim and went to Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown and Rhode Island College, majoring in psychology and anthropology. She also earned a law degree from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. She lived in Rhode Island for 30 years before returning to the Chestnut Hill area.

Since her retirement in 2011 (her husband, Ken Weiner, retired at the same time), Wallace has volunteered with Fair Districts PA, a non-partisan anti-gerrymandering organization associated with the League of Women Voters. And if you looked up the definition for “multi-tasker” in the dictionary, you might see her photo. She has volunteered for Weavers Way Food Co-op and started an ad hoc committee on elder life planning at Chestnut Hill Quaker Meeting.

She is also a regular contributor of articles to the Local, a Trail Ambassador with Friends of the Wissahickon, has helped fundraise for the Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation in Wynnewood and volunteered for the Ellen Stevenson mask-making effort in Flourtown for essential workers. She and her husband took trips to England for fun and out West before the pandemic to see her family and old friends. As she put it, “This is not the time to drink cheap wine!”

Wallace, who also engages in periodic fasting, sought out a nutritionist while she underwent chemotherapy. The nutritionist, who worked with many cancer patients, advised her to stick to an anti-inflammatory diet; little to no dairy, drastically reducing sugar and only organic meat in small portions. 

For more information on ovarian cancer symptoms, risk factors, STS and how you can get help, visit www.sandyovarian.org. You can contact Len Lear at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com Barbara Sherf contributed to this article.

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