Atlanta, Georgia, February 10, 2011—Nancy Johnson thrives on yoga and exercise, spending up to three days a week in the gym at Georgia State University, where, as associate dean, she teaches law students about legal research and runs the law library.
She credits both yoga and exercise with her recovery from stage-three ovarian cancer, diagnosed in May 2008. “Exercise made me strong, so after I got sick I was able to get back into the swing of things. The fact that I was in good shape really helped me through the chemo and my illness.”
So it was no surprise when, in the midst of chemo, she participated in a grueling, six-hour, 100-virtual-mile cycle ride to help fund ovarian cancer research. “I was not very strong and I was bald—I wore a funny hat—but I did it! It is such a tremendous experience. I just kept going.”
Professor Johnson is one of many survivors who have clocked six continuous hours on an indoor cycle to show their support for ovarian cancer research. Ovarian Cycle (Ovariancycle.org) is an Atlanta-based organization whose wellness and training program has raised more than $855,000 for ovarian cancer research. Training is underway, culminating with the final 100-mile ride April 16 at the Midtown Athletic Club at Windy Hill in Marietta, Georgia.
According to the American Cancer Society, 21,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year; of that number, 13,000 will not survive. By the time symptoms are present, it’s usually too late.
Johnson knew something was wrong while she was gardening. “I was pulling weeds and had a horrible pain in my stomach.” She called her physician and went to the ER. A blood test showed her CA-125 levels were over the top, indicating a likelihood of cancer. (CA-125 measures a cancer protein in the blood.) The excruciating pain, discovered in her garden, may have been one of the tumors that burst. A CT-scan showed late-stage ovarian cancer. The next morning she began chemo treatments and, in July, had surgery. Dr. Benedict Benigno, gynecological oncologist at Northside Hospital and cofounder of the Ovarian Cancer Institute (at Georgia Tech), is her surgeon.
While the CA-125 test did reveal cancer for Johnson, it is generally unreliable because of an inability to detect early-stage ovarian cancer. “There are too many false positives, often producing unnecessary anxiety in healthy women,” says Dr. Benigno. “But consider the alternative.” Researchers hope to find a reliable marker so women can be diagnosed and treated earlier to increase survival odds.
Immediately following surgery, Johnson was given “hot” chemo to decrease chances of a recurrence. “We’re all willing guinea pigs with Dr. Benigno,” laughs Johnson. “Now he administers hipec routinely.”
Johnson praises Dr. Benigno’s nurses and nurse practitioner in the chemo area: “They really take care of you; they get you through it and they are there for you. They have a lot of compassion; you walk in the door and you’re treated like you’re the only one there.”
Support from nurses, family, friends and coworkers speeded her recovery. So did yoga. During her recuperation, Johnson discovered the benefits of yoga through GSU’s Wellness Center. “I love yoga; it makes me more flexible and relaxes me. We have a good support group as well; everyone at the wellness center has had cancer.”
Part of her recovery involves volunteering: she walked for GOCA (Georgia Ovarian Cancer Alliance) and participates in Survivors Teaching Students at Emory Medical School, sharing her cancer experience with med students. She also plans to work for the American Cancer Society.
A North Atlanta resident, Johnson began training for Ovarian Cycle at the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody: “The JCC team [for Ovarian Cycle] is very motivating. I wandered into the center two years ago and they took me under their wing; they kept me going.”
Meanwhile, she has a new appreciation of life: “I learned to value life and live every day the best I can. You never stop to think about this when you’re well. Every cancer patient learns you go day to day. Nobody says they love you until something like this happens.”
To participate in, or donate to, Ovarian Cycle, see Ovariancycle.org.
About Ovarian Cycle
“Ovarian Cycle is designed to raise funds for ovarian cancer research, galvanize volunteers, and create awareness among women,” notes founder and fitness instructor Bethany Diamond. She founded the organization after losing her best friend, Debbie Flamm, to ovarian cancer in 2003. Since then, Ovarian Cycle has expanded to include Atlanta, Birmingham, New York, Seattle, and Tallahassee.
“Ovarian cancer research is looking for a reliable marker,” says Diamond, “so we won’t lose so many women to late-stage cancer.” Funds raised by Ovarian Cycle participants and donors go to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, the Ovarian Cancer Institute, and the Norma Livingston Foundation.