Ovarian cancer is often referred to as a 'silent killer', and the women of Wings of TEAL are striving to raise awareness.
Wings of TEAL is an Ovarian Cancer Support Group based in Polk County, Florida. TEAL stands for Treat Early and Live. It is also the color for ovarian cancer, worn on bracelets, shirts, and other attire by women who are battling the disease, as well as by family members who stand beside them.
Wings of TEAL was founded in 2015 by Carol Vonesh and another ovarian cancer survivor (who has since passed). Members of the support group are working diligently to raise awareness of ‘below the belt’ cancers through advocacy. The youngest member of the group is 18 years old and the oldest member is in her early 80s.
Some of the members are battling ovarian cancer or another ‘below the belt’ cancer for the first time, while others, like Vonesh, say that they have lost count as to how many times their disease has recurred. “It comes very fast, but it’s been there a long time and that’s the problem. There are no diagnostic tools for ovarian cancer and it doesn’t show its ugly head until you are in your later stages. There are no early warnings until it has started to metastasize. And then it mimics other medical issues, such as maybe back ache, tummy ache, maybe feeling full” said Vonesh. “And doctors will often overcome the cancer phase of it and zero in for like maybe IBS or gallbladder issues or something like that” she added.
Unmasking a ‘silent killer’
69-year-old Vonesh has been an ovarian cancer survivor for almost 8 years, although her cancer was advanced when she was diagnosed. She and another long-term survivor, Karla Voorhees, continuously encourage the need for education and support on ovarian cancer.
This year alone, the American Cancer Society estimated that over 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the United States, and 14,000 deaths will occur among these women from this type of cancer. Referred to as a ‘silent killer’, ovarian cancer presents symptoms such as abdominal bloating and pain, lower back pain, gas, frequent urination, constipation and other bowel changes, fatigue, difficulty eating, feeling of fullness, menstrual irregularities, and pain during intercourse. If any of these symptoms persist for longer than two weeks, Vonesh urges women to consult with a doctor right away. “Three-fourths of our members have been misdiagnosed. You end up going from one doctor to another, eating up time that could be used for treatment” she said. In fact, Voorhees was initially told that her abdominal bloating, caused by ovarian cancer, came from eating too much.
Ovarian cancer has a good prognosis for women who were diagnosed with the disease at an early stage. Their 5-year survival rate runs up to 92%. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. In 4 out of 5 ovarian cancer cases, a diagnosis is not received until the disease has advanced and has spread through the abdominal cavity or farther. The 5-year survival rate for women diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer is 29%.
Perhaps the most valuable thing that a woman can do for herself is to be aware of any changes to her body, to undergo an annual examination, as well as to assess her personal risk for ovarian cancer. Risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
- A personal or family history of breast or ovarian cancer
- Never having given birth
- Older age
- Inherited genetic mutations in the BRCA1/2 genes
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer or Lynch syndrome
- Hormone replacement therapy
While there is currently no approach to preventing the onset of ovarian cancer, doctors are aware of factors that can lower a woman’s risk of developing the disease. These factors include:
Tubal ligation and hysterectomy should only be performed for valid medical reasons, which is why consulting with a doctor on such prevention options is important. Moreover, talking with a doctor about early screening for ovarian cancer if it runs in the family is highly recommended. Specific genetic mutations increase the risk for ovarian cancer later on in life. That being said. knowing about these mutations can help women to stay vigilant for changes.
Spreading their wings
Wings of Teal now meets two times a month: the third Monday of each month at Winter Haven Hospital from 5:30pm to 7:00pm, and the last Monday of each month at Watson Clinic Cancer Center in Lakeland from 5:30pm to 7:00pm. The goals of the support group are to provide education, support, and empowerment to women and their families facing life changes brought on by ‘below the belt’ cancers, as well as to raise awareness among the community for ovarian cancer support. “They have recently opened their door to all gynecologic cancers. I would strongly recommend any patient or family member with gynecologic cancer consider involvement or support of this group” said Dr. Richard Cardosi, a gynecologic oncologist who treats both Vonesh and Voorhees.
This year on September 29th, Wings of TEAL will host its third annual awareness event in Lakeland’s Munn Park. Along with education, the event will also feature entertainment, food, music, local businesses and craft vendors, children activities, and much more. As a special treat, a men’s panty race for all below-the-belt cancers is scheduled to take place and Vonesh’s husband, Jack, plans to participant. “We offer a lot of hope and just fun outings. Lunches or dinners. We really have formed a family” said Vonesh.
All of the proceeds from Wings of TEAL fundraising and community events go toward helping women undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, who may be struggling financially. No money will go to the recipient but rather is paid directly to the service rendered. The support group continues to depend on the generosity of businesses and the community in helping them to continue their programs and services. “Part of our goal is to bring out the words ovarian cancer, that it’s not a taboo subject. Ovarian cancer is real and not talking about it isn’t going to make it go away” said Vonesh.