September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. For women everywhere, it’s a reminder to talk to their doctor about this silent killer, especially for those living in the lower seven counties in Illinois.

Unlike mammograms and pap smears, which can detect early gynecologic cancers in women, ovarian cancer has no such test, making it difficult to diagnose and treat until later stages of the disease.

In an effort to increase education and awareness, the Hope Light Foundation and the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition are partnering with regional health care facilities and providers to reduce late stage ovarian cancer for women living in the Southern Seven Health Department region.

Earlier this year, the Talking Ovarian Cancer Project (TOCP), created by Rudy Bess, founder of the Hope Light Foundation, was formed to give women the tools they need to be proactive in their healthcare. Rhonda Andrews-Ray, executive director/public health administrator of Southern Seven Health Department, is the TOCP chair. Bess is the TOCP co-chair.

“Due to the lack of gynecological specialists and genetic counselors in the region, combined with the lack of knowledge by patients to be aware of the signs, many ovarian cancers go undiagnosed,” Bess said. “All women should be aware of the early signs of ovarian cancer, know their family medical history, know the cancer’s risk factors, keep annual checkups with their healthcare provider and seek help from a gynecologic oncologist if ovarian cancer is suspected.”

There is currently no ovarian cancer awareness organization supporting downstate counties. This could be because actual numbers of new ovarian cancer cases and deaths in the region are unknown. The CDC reports three or fewer cases per each southern seven county — Alexander, Hardin, Johnson, Massac, Pope, Pulaski and Union — per year.

“Often the cancer is found after it has spread to other organs, which can discount it as the primary cause of death,” Bess said. “And in many cases, it’s not even detected.”

Many regional healthcare providers from the Southern Seven counties have committed to the project with more expected in the coming weeks. They include Community Health & Emergency Services (CHESI), Hardin County General Hospital, Massac Memorial Hospital, Rural Health, Inc., Southern Seven Health Department and Union County Hospital.

The project is still in planning stages and collecting information from healthcare professionals in the region to assess the needs of patients.

Ovarian cancer can occur at any age. National studies report that 1 out of 78 women will be diagnosed in their lifetime, while 1 in 108 will die from the disease. In Illinois, the majority of cases are reported in more urban areas.

“For some patients, the symptoms are treated as gastrointestinal and less serious disorders with over-the-counter drugs until pain and body abnormalities become unbearable,” Andrews-Ray said.

Early symptoms include abdominal bloating, pressure and pain, abnormal fullness after eating, difficulty eating, increase in urination and increase urge to urinate. These symptoms may occur for various reasons and may be temporary in nature. However, if they persist, they could be a sign of ovarian cancer and will usually become more severe as the tumor grows.

“We are hopeful with education of symptoms that women would seek testing while potential cancers are in early stages,” Andrews-Ray said. “Increased awareness and education about ovarian cancer is the key to saving lives.”

For more information, or if you’re a healthcare provider wanting to be involved, contact Bess at or Shawnna Rhine at Southern Seven Health Department at 618-634-2297, ext. 9161.

The Hope Light Foundation is a 501©(3) nonprofit tax exempt charitable organization with a mission to communicate all-cancers awareness information with a focus on primary prevention, early detection and survivorship using their website and evidence-based outreach activities in Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri.

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