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Ovarian cancer under the radar 

SemiNative

One was a rock star.

One was everybody's favorite mom as her daughters grew up.

The two didn't know each other, but they have one thing in common.

Ovarian cancer killed them.

We are just days away from Breast Cancer Awareness Month. You'd have to be colorblind to not notice the pink everywhere you look each October. It seems every product in stores turns pink with promises of donations to breast cancer charities with purchase. Hell, the pink extends all the way to the shoelaces of NFL players as the football league also works to bring awareness to the disease. The only thing that comes close to competing with the invasion of pink is the pumpkin spice penetration each fall.

But think for a minute. How much teal did you notice this month?

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. It's true, if we're looking at the number of cases of each cancer, it shouldn't be a surprise pink trumps teal. The American Cancer Society says in 2016 there will be 246,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer, with 40,450 women dying from it. They predict 22,280 women will receive a new ovarian cancer diagnosis, and 14,240 will die. Though that number is small in comparison to breast cancer, the American Cancer Society reports that ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women.

Karen Cliatt-Gilkes was born and raised in Colorado Springs. She moved away for college and a few years after, but eventually came back home with her husband. Together they had two children. She was a labor and delivery nurse at Memorial Hospital and her friend Ana Zook described her as a rock star.

I met Karen when our daughters went to the same middle school. Sitting on the uncomfortable bleachers as we chatted, I felt like I made a friend from that first conversation. She was affable, kind and, as Zook said, "Her favorite word was groovy. She was groovy."

What I also learned quickly talking to her was that she was battling ovarian cancer, though at that time she was in remission.

Karen's father Ed Cliatt told me she was diagnosed in 2011. With her family by her side, she put up a great fight. Doctors told them they wouldn't be able to eliminate the cancer, but their hope was to control it. She died in 2013, on her daughter's 13th birthday. A few months later the family gathered with friends to participate in the Sue DiNapoli Ovarian Cancer Society's Be Ovary Aware run/walk. (The organization just hosted its eighth annual run and is an Indy Give! beneficiary this year.)

Sue DiNapoli was a local woman too. Her daughter Laura Ayotte (who I went to college with) says, "Her loss was a big loss to a lot of people." DiNapoli was in her mid-50s when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and she fought the disease for about five years before dying in 2005.

Ayotte says two years after her mother passed, a group of friends gathered and walked from Palmer Lake to Monument in her memory. Without any organization, they raised a couple thousand dollars to donate to ovarian cancer organizations.

Ayotte and her sister Susan Guyton joined forces with the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance to create an organized run/walk, and started the society that bears their mother's name. They partner with local businesses to fund Sue's Gift Financial Aid Program that assists women in Southern Colorado who have gynecological cancer. They also have an awareness team — three sisters who lost their mother to ovarian cancer last year — who go to community events to raise awareness of this lesser-publicized reproductive cancer.

Thanks to the proliferation of pink and the awareness efforts that accompany it, very few people are unaware of the risks of breast cancer. Ovarian cancer is harder to detect, and because of that a woman can have advanced cancer before she even knows she has it. Being aware of the risk is an important start: A family history of ovarian or breast cancer should put a woman and her doctors on alert.

Karen's father, who spoke to me because three years after losing their daughter his wife, also named Sue, still has difficulty speaking without crying, says, "People need to be educated."

One place to start that education process is the Sue DiNapoli Ovarian Cancer Society's website: beovaryaware.org.

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