Getting real about teal Old Greenwich woman shares story of her mother’s fight against ovarian cancer
GREENWICH — It’s been 25 years, but Kaile Zagger can still vividly remember the day her life changed forever.
Her mother, who worked at a hospital, always shifted her schedule to be there for Zagger and her sister. But one day, her mother failed to pick them up from school.
Their worries about messed up afternoon plans turned to alarm when the sisters were taken to the hospital where their mother worked and found her in bed instead of on the job.
“Her midsection was swollen as if she were nine months pregnant,” said Zagger, who was a teenager at the time. “Ovarian cancer in eight short hours had filled her abdomen with ascites. She asked us to sit down on the bed with her. My father walked in shortly thereafter and the doctor explained to us that my mom had advanced stage ovarian cancer and did not have long to live.”
Zagger’s mother Marilyn fought back and lived for six more years before succumbing to the disease, which is known as the silent killer, in 1999 at the age of 46.
The Old Greenwich resident shared her story earlier this week at a Town Hall ceremony as First Selectman Peter Tesei pledged support for national Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Before a crowd of nearly 50, including friends and her family, Zagger talked about her mother’s illness and the need for greater awareness of ovarian cancer.
“This has had a profound and major impact on her life and the life of her family,” Tesei said. “Her mission is to see more women and families become intimately aware of the cause of this insidious form of cancer and what can be done to treat it.”
Zagger is a volunteer with an ovarian cancer awareness group TEAL, an acronym for the Tell Every Awesome Lady About Ovarian Cancer Louisa M. McGregor Ovarian Cancer Foundation. Many in the crowd wore teal-colored clothing and the lights outside Town Hall were changed to teal for September — all to to support the group’s work.
Across Greenwich, 109 homes and 27 businesses, as well as the Sound Beach Volunteer Fire Department, are displaying teal lights as a show of solidarity.
“We are committing to raise awareness and educate to save lives,” Zagger said.
The statistics around ovarian cancer are staggering. It is responsible for more deaths than any other gynecological cancer and is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the country, claiming the lives of more than 14,000 women every year in the U.S. Because it can be difficult to detect early, in more than 70 percent of the cases it is diagnosed in Stage 3, where the survival rate is less than 20 percent.
TEAL’s goal is to increase community awareness of ovarian cancer and its symptoms. Many women try to tolerate the symptoms, which can be vague and nonspecific, and they should not be ignored, Zagger said.
The symptoms include constant and unexplained fatigue, changes in bathroom habits, weight gain or loss, abdominal bloating, pain during intercourse, unusual vaginal discharge, a weak appetite or feeling full quickly after meals; and abdominal or lower back pain. If those symptoms persist for more than two weeks, a woman should make an appointment with her gynecologist.
And as a mother of two, Zagger said this is advice she needs to give herself.
“I, too, am guilty of ignoring vague symptoms,” she said. “I am busy with work, my children and life, all of which present higher priorities than my little aches and pains. I understand and have fundamentally lived by the rule that unless the symptoms are going to debilitate me, I am going to press on and ignore. People count on me. They are the priority, and I don’t have time for going to the doctor.”
By telling her mother’s story, Zagger said she wanted women to learn to not ignore vague symptoms and to “respond to the whispers of our bodies promptly.”
“This is the most important thing we can do for those around us as it may allow us to be here with those we love longer,” she said.
Dr. Gil More and Dr. Gloria Huang from Yale New Haven Hospital joined Zagger at the Monday ceremony.
Mor said advances are being made because doctors no longer approach ovarian cancer as a single disease but as several diseases, allowing for a better understanding of the treatment.
“The beginning of the success is when you know who and what is your enemy,” Mor said. “I am today in a better condition than I was 20 years ago because I know what my enemy is and we are developing better approaches to treat these multiple diseases we call ovarian cancer.”
Huang encouraged all women with concerns about a family history of breast or ovarian cancer to speak with their physician and a genetic counselor for testing.
“Knowledge is power when it comes to preventing ovarian cancer and other cancers,” Huang said.
The Town Hall event was put together by TEAL and the Greenwich Republican Town Committee.
On Sept. 26, the YWCA Greenwich will host a program on “How To Prevent and Survive Ovarian Cancer.” The seminar, which will begin at 6:30 p.m., is part of YWCA Greenwich’s partnership with TEAL to promote women’s health.