By Kristina Houck
Like most, Carmel Valley resident Naomi Whitacre looks to the future every New Year. She also reflects on her past.
Jan. 8 marked the 12th anniversary of her ovarian surgery.
Whitacre had been a seemingly healthy 54-year-old executive at a large technology company. After working out at the beach one day, she fell ill with a 103-degree fever. Her doctor suspected appendicitis and instructed her to get to the hospital immediately. An MRI of her abdomen, however, revealed a cantaloupe-sized tumor that had formed around a fibrotic ovarian cyst. Three days later, doctors removed the growth, which turned out to be stage 2C ovarian cancer.
“I consider it a total blessing that I was accidentally diagnosed at a very early stage,” said Whitacre, now 65 years old. “I’m a long-term healthy survivor and have used that experience to really transform my life and really appreciate the simple beautiful parts of life.”
She has also used her experience to inform others about ovarian cancer.
Whitacre will share her story during a breast and ovarian cancer seminar Feb. 11 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Carmel Valley. Surgeon Dr. Michele Carpenter, genetic counselor Sandra Brown and breast cancer survivor Lynn Flanagan will also speak about breast and ovarian cancer risks, lifestyle modifications, symptoms, detection and treatment options.
Flanagan is working with the Church of the Later Day Saints on the event. Flanagan has organized more than a dozen breast cancer seminars in the last 15 years, including the Sept. 18 breast cancer seminar at St. Therese of Carmel Catholic Church
“Ovarian cancer is not nearly as prevalent, but it has a higher mortality rate,” said Carmel Valley resident Flanagan, a breast cancer survivor for more than 16 years. “The symptoms for ovarian cancer are subtle, but there are definite signs of ovarian cancer developing. To do a thorough job for women in our community, I thought that we needed to include ovarian cancer this time.”
About 20,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, but it accounts for only about 3 percent of all cancers in women. In 2010, 19,959 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and 14,572 died from the disease, according to the CDC.
Aside from non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the U.S., according to the CDC. In 2010, 206,966 women and 2,039 men in the U.S. were diagnosed with breast cancer, and 40,996 women and 439 men died from the disease, according to the CDC.
“Because ovarian cancer is so much more rare than breast cancer, when ovarian cancer occurs, it’s something we pay a lot of attention to in genetics,” said Brown, manager of the Cancer Genetics Program at St. Joseph Hospital and Mission Hospital in Orange, Calif. “Some women with ovarian cancer don’t realize that they or their family members have a higher risk for breast cancer and other cancers that may be related.”
Because of her history of ovarian cancer, Whitacre decided to have genetic testing four years ago. Her decision likely saved her sisters’ lives, she said.
She learned that she carried the BRCA1 gene, which has been tied to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Whitacre immediately had a double mastectomy.
Both of her sisters also tested positive for the BRCA1 gene and had their ovaries removed. When her youngest sister had her ovaries removed, doctors discovered high-grade fallopian cancer.
“I’m a lucky person,” Whitacre said. “I’m alive and I’m healthy and if by sharing my story I can help others, I’m going to do that.”
The presentations will begin at 7 p.m. followed by a question and answer session with the speakers at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 12701 Torrey Bluff Drive, San Diego. All are welcome to attend the free event.
“It’s very gratifying to be able to give important and accurate information to the patient population so that they can make better informed decisions,” said Carpenter, program director of the Breast Program at The Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment in Orange, Calif. “I think a lot of times that when patients hear things, they only hear half of what they need to hear and then they try to piece things together. It’s important to try to explain it in a more logical fashion.”
“This event is for healthy women, as well as for cancer survivors,” Flanagan added. “I want all women to know this is all about proactivity and knowing what you can do to make changes in your life.”