- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Something was wrong, she just knew it.
Karri Chamberlain Van damm, 39, wasn’t feeling well. She wasn’t herself.
Starting last February, she had stomach problems, bloating, indigestion. Back pain started; she could barely breathe and was tired all the time.
Doctors diagnosed her with irritable bowel syndrome.
She was chugging Maalox, doing everything the doctors told her to do.
“Nothing was making it better,” said Van damm, a former Indian Head resident who lives in Frederick with her daughter, Rhyan, 15.
Fed up, Van damm demanded answers.
“I said, ‘Look, I’m not leaving here — you’re giving me a scan,’” Van damm said. “I had to fight for it.”
In June, she finally had her answer. She had Stage 4 ovarian cancer.
“There is no early detection test for ovarian cancer,” she said.
Symptoms like hers — bloating, indigestion — that go on for two weeks or longer are the warning signs, Van damm learned.
Within a week of the diagnosis, she had surgery at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore.
Four quarts of fluid were drained, her ovaries and spleen removed.
“It all happened so fast; I had no time to really think about it,” she said.
What Van damm learned later was deflating.
More than 22,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, and 15,000 women will die from it annually.
According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths for women 35 to 74.
An estimated one woman in 71 will develop ovarian cancer during her lifetime, according to the organization.
When diagnosed and treated in the earliest stages, the 5-year survival rate is more than 90 percent.
Due to ovarian cancer’s symptoms and lack of early detection tests, only 19 percent of women who have it are diagnosed in the early stages, according to the American Cancer Society.
If caught in Stage 3 or higher, the survival rate can be as low as 30.6 percent.
The statistics are unacceptable to Van damm, who graduated from Lackey High School.
She wants to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. She got in touch with Teal Toes, a Bethesda-based organization that provides people with materials to give out to promote awareness. Founded by ovarian and breast cancer survivor Carey Fitzmaurice, Teal Toes came out of Fitzmaurice not having much teal — the signature color of ovarian cancer awareness — in her wardrobe so she turned to nail polish.
“It was a way to bring teal into the conversation,” she said.
Friends started wearing teal nail polish too and Fitzmaurice knew her idea was a hit and a way to get people talking about ovarian cancer.
Rhyan’s volleyball team at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School wore teal shirts during a game dedicated to Van damm, hoping to get the word out about the disease.
“The symptoms are so subtle,” said Fitzmaurice of ovarian cancer going undiagnosed until it might be too late.
“The bottom line is, this is a women’s health issue. You need to know your body. This isn’t on a lot of doctors’ radar screens and not a lot of women’s radar screens,” she added.
Van damm, who is undergoing chemotherapy, lost her hair in treatment, and instead of wearing a wig, hats or scarves, she opted to be bald, hoping to prompt a conversation with someone and get the word out about ovarian cancer.
Her parents, Rob and Nancy Chamberlain and Kent and Sandy Rodeheaver, helped Van damm get to treatment, stayed with her and took care of Rhyan.
“My family is amazing; my friends are amazing,” Van damm said. “I gained so much. The kindness of total and complete strangers, people are so willing to help.”
Still, “there were a lot of rough days,” she conceded, but her already tight bond with Rhyan strengthened.
“She’s incredible,” Van damm said. “She gave me my strength to fight. Being bald is not easy; she tells me I’m beautiful.”
The expected bickering between a mom and her teenage daughter is usually stopped before it starts.
“Certain things are really not that serious,” Van damm said.
Some things are worth fighting for, though.
When it comes to health issues, Van damm said it’s important to speak up and be heard.
“You have to be persistent,” Van damm. “You know your body. You have to be an advocate for yourself.”