AP NEWS

Greenwich woman helps lead early detection battle against ovarian, breast cancers

May 4, 2019

GREENWICH — Greenwich Hospital will spearhead an effort to help doctors better recognize the symptoms and signs of ovarian cancer and breast cancer and more effectively diagnose the potentially deadly diseases.

Town resident Kaile Zagger and Dr. Elena Ratner, a leader in the field of gynecological oncology, co-founded the MAT Education Program, which will provide doctors with a rigorous curriculum to help them to better understand the vague signs and symptoms of the two cancers at an early stage.

The issue is meaningful to Zagger, whose mother, Marilyn Ann Trahan, died after a six-year battle with ovarian cancer. It was Trahan’s struggle with the disease that inspired the MAT initiative, which bears her initials.

“She was a warrior and waged repeated battles with the horrific nature of ovarian cancer,” Zagger said. “In 1999 at the age of 46, she succumbed to the disease. My family was splintered. ... The impact was devastating. … Cancer doesn’t just impact the patient. It traumatizes families, creates financial devastation, depletes communities and leaves scars that are unable to be healed.”

The MAT program is designed to identify women who are at an elevated risk of breast or ovarian cancer as well as find those showing initial signs of the diseases sooner. Primary care physicians and specialists will learn more about the signs and symptoms, with a goal of diagnosing women sooner, instead of when they reach Stage 3 or Stage 4.

In the U.S. last year, nearly 300,000 new cases of breast and ovarian cancer were diagnosed. Of those patients, 55,000 women died.

“Studies show that women with ovarian cancer have the disease for 24 months, and they have seen four to six physicians” before it is diagnosed, Zagger said. “Symptoms are vague, they whisper, but they are there and they are just enough for us to ignore and prioritize something more interesting.”

And when some women seek medical care for abdominal pain, frequent urination, bloating, trouble eating, mild back pain, rashes, exhaustion or even flu-like symptoms, the diagnosis is not made. Saying “the puzzle is not being completed,” Zagger said the health care community needed more training to understand breast and ovarian cancers.

The curriculum was designed by Ratner, an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at the Yale School of Medicine and clinical leader for the Gynecological Oncology Program at the Smilow Cancer Hospital. Her colleagues helped with the curriculum, which she will take to physicians working in a variety of specialities at Greenwich Hospital.

“This truly will change the future of women’s care,” Ratner said. Greenwich Hospital will soon set an example for other hospitals and health systems to follow, she said.

“We need to not only find these cancers early, we need to prevent the cancers,” she said. “The future is prevention. I’m not only going to cure your cancer or find it early, we’re going to find it before it even happens so you never have to hear those words — that you have cancer.”

The MAT program has partner organizations from around the community, including town government, the Greenwich-based Breast Cancer Alliance, YWCA Greenwich and the UJA-JCC of Greenwich.

The effort at Greenwich Hospital will officially launch June 1 with the goal of completing training by Oct. 31.

The MAT Education Program was celebrated May 1, with a special proclamation ceremony at Town Hall. First Selectman Peter Tesei presented the formal proclamation to Zagger and her two children, Geralyn Grace and Colton.

Tesei recounted that his mother and wife have both been treated for breast cancer, and his aunt died from it.

“I cannot thank you enough for bringing together the resources medically, in research and within the professional medical community, to put this together,” Tesei said. “What you’re doing is saving lives and saving the future for those women and their families. I’ve seen first hand what happens when a parent doesn’t survive and how it indelibly changes the future for those children.”

During the ceremony, Greenwich resident Diane Powis, discussed what she is facing as an ovarian cancer patient. Her mother died from breast cancer, as did both of her mother’s aunts. Because of her family’s Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish descent, which research has shown is of high risk for breast cancer, Powis said she was hyper-vigilant about checking for any sign of breast cancer.

But when Powis became ill, neither she nor any of her doctors had any idea what was happening as she got sicker and sicker. It was only after she went for a colonoscopy that she found out that she had a large cancerous mass inside her that was caused by Stage 3 ovarian cancer. It had gone undetected and spread “like sand thrown sideways” inside her, she said.

“When I was finally diagnosed in 2013, my prognosis was, at best, five years, and I am acutely aware that I am only still alive today because of recent advances in gynecological oncology as well as the amazing work of countless health professionals who have guided me through multiple surgeries, years of chemotherapy infusions, two clinical trials and my current regiment on a PARP inhibitor,” Powis said. She wondered how her life would have been different had MAT training been in place and her cancer had been detected sooner.

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com