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Ovarian cancer is wake-up call

Marcia VanDewark of Orchard Park had the benefit of an astute and caring doctor when she was afflicted with ovarian cancer.

She woke up after her seven-hour operation to the sight of her gynecologist crying.

A surgeon had told her mother that she had seven months to live.

"Not only did she survive," said her mother, Marian Mlynarczyk of Buffalo, she went on to become a national pioneer in the battle against an illness that has claimed the lives of many, including actress Gilda Radner and the mother of presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Fourteen years later, Marcia VanDewark serves as president of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition-New York.

"In my illness, I lived more intensely than I ever did before," said VanDewark, who earned a doctorate from the University at Buffalo. "I began to see the little acts of kindness of others in a special way."

VanDewark became a chemo coach for the American Cancer Society "while I was still wearing my wig," and she also volunteered for NOCC.

"My chemo treatments continued for several months. I didn't feel normal for a year," she recalled. "Because I lost all my hair from my chemo treatments, I wore a wig when I went back to my teaching job," teaching writing at Erie Community College.

Ovarian cancer -- known as the cancer that whispers -- gave few clues to VanDewark before she was diagnosed in the early 1990s with Stage 1 ovarian cancer. "I felt stuffed after eating very little," recalled VanDewark.

"I was extremely tired, and my belly swelled. Some people thought I was pregnant," said VanDewark, who was unable to have children.

"Women should know about symptoms, like pelvic or abdominal pain or discomfort, or feeling full after a small meal," she said. "Associated factors include undesired infertility."

"Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I attended religious services, but I didn't relate to religion in a personal way," VanDewark said.

But faced with her own mortality, "I felt like a scared child," she recalled.

"I asked my family to bring my sketch pad and colored pencils to the hospital. I also asked for a notebook and pen. In my hospital bed, I began writing."

Recently, in the Clarence Barnes & Noble, she presented a collection of short stories, "Five Minutes to Midnight," and poetry, "A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven." Some of the proceeds she donates to NOCC.

Although there are no accurate early-screening tests for ovarian cancer, VanDewark points to a collaborative research project by Roswell Park Cancer Institute and University at Buffalo department of chemistry "that's showing promise, leading to a screening test that will diagnose ovarian cancer in an early, treatable stage."

Have an idea about a local person whose life would make a good profile or a neighborhood issue worth exploring?E-mail or write to: Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240.

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