The calendar is about to flip to another school year and many of us are scurrying around this last week of summer thinking of all the tasks left undone, the trips not taken, the books not read. This is the time of year when we may be susceptible to feelings of remembrance and regret and occasional bouts of complaint. But for Shari Widmayer, there are no such negative thoughts: she feels lucky to be alive. As a three-year survivor of ovarian cancer she counts each new day as a blessing. “Another year for me means another year of seeing my girls grow up, another year of advocacy and helping save lives. And even if it’s just one life, I’ve accomplished something huge, because that one life could be somebody’s mother, daughter, wife, or sister.”
I first introduced you to this remarkable woman one year ago in this column as the key to the mystery behind the undulating ribbons of teal adorning the streets of West Windsor and Plainsboro. The ribbons were part of the “Turn the Towns Teal” campaign that started with 40 towns four years ago and has caught momentum nationwide. While October is well known as Breast Cancer Awareness month, September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, not as well known, but Shari is determined to change that. And as part of that effort, she’ll be turning the town teal once again.
While there are screening tools for breast cancer and symptoms may manifest in its early stages, not so for ovarian cancer, which starts deep inside a woman’s body and can be present without symptoms for a long time. In fact, by the time any symptoms do show up, the patient already may be in Stage 3, which is exactly where Shari was three summers ago when her own battle with ovarian cancer began.
She is one of the lucky ones. Her body responded well to surgery and chemotherapy, and she’s been in remission since January, 2008. But others are not so lucky. Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women in America. Last year there were an estimated 21,000 new cases of ovarian cancer in the United States and almost 15,000 deaths. Early detection and education are the keys to survival, which is why Shari has dedicated much of her life to advocacy around the disease.
Last month she was in Washington, D.C., at the annual conference of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. “We had more than 300 people from all over the country — women in treatment, women newly diagnosed, family members, those who have lost loved ones. We spent our time meeting with legislators and trying to get funding for ovarian cancer research.” The alliance is working on winning passage for Johanna’s Law, which would allow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to do an awareness campaign around the signs and symptoms of all gynecological cancers.
“I met a woman from Oregon who is in her second occurrence and not getting the best treatment so that was depressing,” reports Shari. “I also met a 17-year survivor from New Jersey, who was diagnosed when giving birth, so after her Caesarean, they did a hysterectomy. She’s doing well and that gives me hope. You meet a lot of women who are amazing. People ask me how do you keep going and you meet these women who are doing it. So you keep putting one foot in front of the other. But as a mom I want to make everyone’s pain go away.”
She was struck at one particular session where participants were shown a video about how much progress society has made in 40-some years in terms of technology, but so little in improving the statistics for ovarian cancer treatment and survival. “We all know our bodies; we know when something is not right. We have to advocate for ourselves. Doctors say you’re getting older, it’s your metabolism, you’re going through your changes, but it could be more than that.”
In addition to her advocacy work, Shari has been busy celebrating another year of joyful family life. Daughter Hannah, now 13, became a Bat Mitzvah last October. “After adopting my daughters, that was the single most emotional event of my life,” she recalls. “It was hard for me to keep it together because there was a point in my life when I thought I might not live to see that.” In January she saw 11-year-old Lillie place second in a state gymnastics meet.
Her husband, Don, a retired state trooper who was working on his teaching certification program at Rider when we met him last year, finished that program and was a student teacher in the second grade at Maurice Hawk School in the spring. As for Shari, she managed to cross one more item off her own bucket list. She had always wanted to be a teacher. She got her wish when she taught two baking classes in the culinary certificate program at Mercer County College. In addition to wearing the hats of ovarian cancer advocate, suburban mom, and teacher, she is also executive pastry chef at Jasna Polana in Princeton.
Shari notes that most mothers tend to put their own needs on the back burner. “Most of us will make sure that our children, our husbands, and even our dogs have their appointments in place before making our own. But if we’re not here, who’s going to take care of the family? So don’t keep putting yourself and your health at the bottom of the to-do list; listen to your body, make that appointment, and go see your doctor.”
As part of the awareness month, Shari encourages everyone to wear teal on Friday, September 3, an event getting a national push from ovarian cancer organizations as Wear Teal Day. On Saturday, September 25, there will be a fundraising “High Tea” featuring the Jersey Harmony Chorus at the Chauncey Conference Center at Educational Testing Services, Rosedale Road, in Princeton, from 3 to 5 p.m. Tickets are on sale at www.tealtea.com or through the center. For more information about Turning the Towns Teal, go to www.turnthetownsteal.org.