Bonnie Morgan and Alana Walsh-Giovannini work tirelessly to raise awareness and funds to combat ovarian cancer through their groups OCRE and BWB-NL
The end of September does not only signify the beginning of autumn – it also marks the end of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.
In the capital city this month, the Ovarian Cancer Research and Education Committee and the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador held their annual exposium, an effort to raise awareness and understanding of ovarian cancer, relay the most recent advances in research, and give a voice to those affected by this disease.
Held September 15, this year’s exposium saw nearly 100 attendees. Committee co-chairs Bonnie Morgan and Alana Walsh-Giovannini spoke to The Herald after the exposium wrapped up, starting off with a brutally honest statistic: At least one woman every week in Newfoundland and Labrador will receive the devastating news that she has ovarian cancer.
“Our hope is to eliminate as many of these incidents as possible through education, raising awareness and supporting the genetic research being carried out in our province, and to ultimately provide early diagnosis to improve prognosis.”
The pair have been working together since the summer of 2015, when the old friends reunited and found common ground – they had both been personally affected by ovarian cancer.
In 2008, 52-year-old Morgan had just moved back to Newfoundland, in a new relationship and feeling “high on life,” she recalled. When, about a year later, Morgan began to feel bloated, she chalked it up to menopause. Still, she decided to visit her family doctor. Blood tests and an ultrasound uncovered shocking news – Stage 3 ovarian cancer.
“I was heartbroken and terrified all at the same time. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. My life was shattered – a cancer diagnosis was the furthest thing from my mind, as, to my knowledge, there was nothing like this in my family history.
‘Fight for My Life’
“I had gone from being what I thought was a healthy woman one day to a frightened and confused person with what could be a terminal disease.”
She underwent two major surgeries and nine cycles of chemotherapy. Four years later, her cancer returned, resulting in another six months of chemotherapy in the “fight for my life,” she said.
In 2017, Morgan’s cancer returned again, resulting in surgery and eight months of chemotherapy, which she recently completed.
“Ovarian cancer is extremely hard to detect and my experience has made me realize that I can help other women by sharing my story,” Morgan said. “I want to do what I can to educate others about the facts, risks, signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer and raise funds to advance research into prevention and treatment here in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Walsh-Giovannini has learned a lot about ovarian cancer over the years, through her work with OCRE, her friendship with Morgan, and also having lost her own mother, Joan, to the disease. Joan Ryall Garcia was 64, still active, and fit, diving into retirement with a clean bill of health.
Like Morgan, she attributed her symptoms – vaginal bleeding, mild discomfort – to menopause. When doctors attempted to perform a hysterectomy, they diagnosed Garcia with Stage 4B ovarian cancer. On October 31, 2001, only 12 weeks after diagnosis, Garcia lost her battle, having undergone two surgeries and nine rounds of chemotherapy.
“How does a healthy, fit, 64-year-old woman who was vigilant about her health have this dreaded disease and not know, not have any warning signs?” Walsh-Giovannini asked. “She had numerous health tests, pap smears, vaginal ultrasounds, mammograms, EKG, EEG, urine analysis and numerous blood tests, yet nothing had revealed a hint of this deadly disease,” she said in frustration.
“We were both well educated, well-travelled, yet we knew nothing. How did we get to this day and age and not have a screening method for this killer?” In 2018, 17 years later, there is still no screening test for ovarian cancer – but “we are getting closer everyday,” Walsh-Giovannini shared.
“Time has not dampened my resolve to do everything in my power to fund OCRE and BWB-NL, to pour money into the life-saving research and education that is going on right here in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
BWB-NL stands for Belles With Balls NL, a fundraising group co-chaired by Morgan and Walsh-Giovannini, that helps gather funds to assist in ovarian cancer genetic research, hosting educational symposiums with physicians, dieticians, psychologists, and other health care providers, informing the public about the discrete signs of ovarian cancer, and treatment options, their Facebook page explains.
Together, OCRE and BWB-NL have raised almost $100,000 for genetics research being carried out for Ovarian Cancer, right here on the island at Memorial University. The funds are being put to good use – there have already been significant advances in genetic research for ovarian cancer made in St. John’s.
In order to continue this critical research, Walsh-Giovannini, Morgan, OCRE and BWB-NL are now planning an event in early November 2018, followed by a golf tournament in the spring of 2019, as a fundraiser for their causes.
“We are making a difference – ovarian cancer is now becoming known and better understood, and we are saving lives already.”