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Mother's Day: Honoring the Drive to Survive
by Jenny Davies-Schley

Mother’s Day is a celebration of mothers and children marked by breakfasts in bed, flowers and homemade cards made with markers and even glitter. This holiday is a very real reminder of the profound meaning of life, especially for Colorado resident Jill Olin Parks.

The young mother of two beautiful daughters, 3-year-old Avery and 1-year-old Rowan, it’s hard to believe Jill is an ovarian cancer survivor. Diagnosed in the fifth of her second pregnancy, she was simultaneously surprised and terrified.

“I couldn’t have been more shocked when during my second pregnancy, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer,apostrophe said Jill. “No one would ever expect it.apostrophe

During a routine OB-GYN visit earlier in the year a nurse practitioner mentioned feeling an enlarged ovary during her exam, but asked no questions and suggested no follow up tests. “Some women are like that,apostrophe she explained.

And at an early pregnancy appointment an ultrasound technician pointed to an ovarian mass and presumed it was a cyst. Two months later the mass was the size of a cantaloupe and was determined to be an aggressive grade 3 cancer.

It turns out Jill did have several of the classic symptoms--bloating, abdominal pain, feeling full quickly while eating and a frequent urge to urinate. But these symptoms seem a little vague to medical providers. She isn’t sure she really noticed them herself.

“I just couldn’t believe it at first,apostrophe Jill explained. “I wasn’t an old lady. I went to doctors numerous times during the year and no one suspected I had a deadly disease.apostrophe

The truth is ovarian cancer can and does strike women at any age. It’s not particularly rare either—20,000 American and 330 Coloradan women are diagnosed yearly, most of whom (81%) are already in late stages when survival rates are very low. Early detection is the best way to ensure survival.

Jill explained the most troubling aspect of her situation was that she was in her fifth month of pregnancy. “Suddenly, we were faced with some of the most terrifying decisions parents ever face. Should we terminate the pregnancy so I could concentrate on my treatment? Could it be possible to undergo treatment while pregnant and if so, would it hurt the baby? Would it be more prudent to put off on treatment until after the baby’s birth, knowing my children would likely grow up without their mother?apostrophe

Early on Jill and her husband decided to continue the pregnancy. After tearful discussions and several sleepless nights, they decided to start treatment. With almost no research on the effects of chemotherapy on a developing fetus, they worried incessantly whether the baby would survive, and if so, would she be healthy?

Jill and her family were lucky. Despite the chemotherapy, Rowan was born totally healthy, albeit a month early. After her birth, cancer staging exploratory surgery showed that no cancer remained. She was (and is) cancer-free. But as deadly recurrences are common, she will undergo blood work and CT scans regularly for the rest of my life.

Hers is a joyful story. She is a healthy mom with two healthy children. Because she did survive, she feels a responsibility to “pay it forward,apostrophe so recently joined the board of directors of Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance (COCA). COCA is a statewide, nonprofit organization that educates Coloradans about ovarian cancer risks, symptoms and the importance of early diagnosis. COCA also provides support for women with ovarian cancer and their families, and it advocates for research and improvement of ovarian cancer diagnosis and treatment.

This is what COCA and Jill want women--mothers and non-mothers alike--to do to survive:

• Know and watch for the four telltale symptoms of ovarian cancer—bloating, abdominal pain, feeling full quickly while eating and a frequent urge to urinate
• Contrary to popular belief, annual pap exams do NOT screen for this type of cancer
• Be your own advocate—if you have symptoms, say so at your doctor’s appointment
• Many medical providers are not knowledgeable about ovarian cancer—urge them to learn more.

On Mother’s Day Jill celebrates Rowan, Avery and her cancer-free status and honors the drive to survive.