Six women sit around an oblong table, enjoying a meal of just-gone-cold hamburgers and fries, their coordinating teal necklaces, earrings and bracelets twinkling in the waning light beaming through the north windows of Texas Oncology. Six months ago, that number was eight, and two years before, more than 10 women gathered at the monthly Princess Warriors meetings, a group that provides education, support and care for women battling gynecological cancer; 2011 was a good year as nobody “left” the group.
The membership of Princess Warriors has obviously tapered over the years, and it will sadly continue to fall. “Our group diminishes because, well, we die!” says Kay Fields, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in June 2007. “Ovarian cancer, or gynecological cancer, is not an easy thing to overcome.”
Formed in 2000 by ovarian cancer survivor Rhonda Gray, the mission of the survivor group is to increase awareness and to share their personal experiences about their diagnosis, treatment and future. Rhonda’s cancer returned, and she passed away in 2006.
Although Princess Warriors meets on the first Tuesday of every month, the September gathering presents a special meaning for these women and their loved ones. It’s Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month, marking the nationally recognized time devoted to spreading awareness.
There are five recognized types of gynecological cancer: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar. There’s only a 30 percent survival rate for women with ovarian cancer, the “silent killer,” which is what the members of Princess Warriors have been diagnosed with Older women are more likely to be affected, and the age range of Princess Warriors usually consists of women 55 to 75, says RN and Princess Warriors sponsor, Valeri Williams.
“The problem is if you’re one of that 10 or 12 percent [diagnosed], then sorry for you,” she says because of the lack of advanced technological research available for ovarian cancer, as the women around her nod their heads in agreement. “It sneaks up on you.”
To say that number is discouraging and depressing is quite the understatement, but these women somehow manage to smile and laugh as they discuss bloating, bleeding and nausea – not your average dinner talk. Not even the men around the table recoil at the mention of estrogen cream as they bite into their cheeseburgers, their appetites intact.
The symptoms of gynecological cancer, such as bloating, abdominal pain and pelvic pain, are sometimes misdiagnosed because the symptoms are often associated with other bodily disorders.
Elena Smith complained of discomfort for several years before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a year ago. She continued to schedule appointments with a number of doctors, but they all brushed her symptoms off as IBS or claimed it was fibromyalgia, and sent her home with a prescription. It wasn’t until Elena underwent surgery for a hernia last year that the doctor noticed she was bloated with fluid. The fluid tested positive for primary peritoneal cancer.
“When most women go to the doctor with those things, they’re going to leave with a pill,” scoffs Elena, her eyebrows raised above her cat-eye glasses.
Unlike for some widespread cancers, such as prostate and breast, the screening tools, research and medical equipment to detect gynecological cancer are lacking, Valeri says. You can’t give yourself an examination, and don’t count on your annual visit to the OBGYN catching the cancer. There’s no equivalent of a colonoscopy or mammogram, and by the time you recognize bloating that has persisted past two weeks or abdominal pain that has not subsided, it’s at least stage 3.
For Kay, she felt tight between her shoulders and hips and knew that it wasn’t normal. But it never occurred to her that she might have cancer. She assumed it was a gastrointestinal issue. Kay saw a gastroenterologist in the spring of 2007 and he sent her to a gynecological oncologist, who performed a CAT scan, finding a seven-to eight-inch mass, which Kay compares to the size of a banana; and the cancer had spread everywhere.
“They did a radical hysterectomy; they peeled it off my lungs and diaphragm, and cut it off my colon. Ovarian cancer centers itself from shoulders to hips,” Kay explains, as she outlines a box around her kaleidoscopic blue and green blouse to demonstrate the area.
Shari Morris has been attending the Princess Warriors meetings since six months after she was diagnosed in July 2008. She’s been in remission for three years and five months, “and 22 days,” she adds with pride. Kay and Shari had mutual friends, so Kay encouraged Shari to attend the meetings, but Shari wasn’t up for it at first. “I was having heavy chemo and I didn’t want to hear about it,” she states. “I didn’t want to hear about death and dying. It was a blow. Kay would call and say, ‘Do you want me to pick you up?’ And I’d say no and make up all these excuses. Then one day, she won me over,” she smirks, peering over at Kay who reciprocates with a close-lipped smile.
“It’s comforting to hear that there’s life after cancer. Or with cancer,” Kay says. “You can get through the surgery and you can survive the chemo and there is life, and it’s good.”
Some women feel that once they are in remission, they have no need for Princess Warriors, but that isn’t the case for Shari. For her, it’s more than comfort, camaraderie and a place to complain about your bad days and celebrate your good ones. “We have a bond that… I’m sorry…” she takes a deep breath, her eyes filling as she rapidly blinks away the tears, “You can’t match anywhere else because even if you’ve had a different kind of cancer, what we have is different… They need me, and I need them.”
Kay is one of the longest-standing Princess Warriors members. After two years in remission, Kay has had two recurrences and recently found out her cancer has come back as a spot on her liver.
“I’m healthy, except I have cancer in me,” she heartily chuckles, as if she’s referring to a minor bruise on her arm rather than a mass on her liver. “That’s really kind of an oxymoron, but I feel healthy and I’m not ill. I’m fighting cancer, and I hope others can look at me, even people I don’t know, and think, ‘If she can do that, then I can too.’”
Ann Brothers is another member of Princess Warriors and has been attending the meetings since the year she was diagnosed, 2007. She was 56. When it’s Ann’s turn to speak at the meeting and give everyone an update on her health, she says, “As long as I can function, I’ll be happy.” As she turns her head toward Elena to signal her turn, Ann’s husband Bill, who’s wearing a teal, rubber wristband like the other men around the table, interrupts and whispers, “Have you told them about your catheter?”
Ann acknowledges she overlooked that piece of information, nonchalantly reiterates the news, and casually goes back to sipping her iced tea. It’s not until people begin to disperse the board room that Ann and Bill share that their daughter, who lives four states away in Florida, made her Facebook profile picture that of a teal ribbon that says, “My mom is my hero,” causing Ann to release concealed emotions, as she allows a few teardrops to trickle down her face at the thought of her daughter.
“You see,” Bill peers at me, arching his sparse, gray brows. “Those smiles are shallow. It runs deep.”
For more information on Princess Warriors, please contact Kay Fields at 806-477-0874 or Shari Morris at 806-681-7561.
by Drew Belle Zerby
After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.