Jodi Shaffer thought she was having stomach problems.
Shaffer, then 36, had been having bad indigestion and often felt bloated after eating.
Looking back more than two decades, Shaffer realizes she had several of the early signs of ovarian cancer. The American Cancer Society lists four early symptoms of the disease:
• Pelvic or abdominal pain.
• Trouble eating or feeling full quickly.
• Urgency or frequency for urinating.
After enduring the symptoms for a while, Shaffer noticed something when she massaged her aching belly that made her call a gastroenterologist.
“I felt the outline of something in my lower abdomen,” Shaffer said at her home on Berlin Plank Road south of Somerset.
The abdominal medicine specialist also felt the mass and asked if she could be pregnant. Shaffer was single and assured the doctor there she was not pregnant, so he ordered a computed tomography scan of her abdomen and referred her to a gynecologist.
The scan showed a mass the size of a 16-week fetus. Her gynecologist told her there was no need to biopsy the mass.
“He said whatever was in there needed to come out,” she said.
After the hysterectomy, pathology determined Shaffer had ovarian cancer.
“It had just started to metastasize, so it was Stage 2,” she recalled. “It was in both ovaries and the abdominal fluid.”
After surgery and some chemotherapy, Shaffer has been cancer-free for 23 years.
She stresses that early symptoms of ovarian cancer can be vague and often ascribed to other conditions. Shaffer credits divine intervention for prompting her to have her vague symptoms checked.
“If not for the grace of God, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “It was by the grace of God that we got it that early. I consider myself very fortunate.”
Shaffer refers to the past 23 years as her “bonus life.”
‘The best advocate’
Women often downplay their symptoms, or write them off as related to other minor ailments, and Shaffer said she was no exception.
“I had been putting in a lot of time at work,” she said. “I had trouble eating and indigestion, but all that can be attributed to something else.
“If you have symptoms, you should get checked. You have to be the best advocate for your health. Nobody is going to care as much about your health as you do.”
Following her treatments, Shaffer participated in a national study of more than 1,500 ovarian cancer patients. The study was led by Dr. Barbara Goff of the University of Washington in Seattle.
Previously, smaller studies indicated many ovarian cancer patients experienced specific symptoms for three to six months before diagnosis.
Goff’s study was published in December 2000 in the medical journal, “Cancer.”
It verified the observation in a significant population of cancer survivors, showing 95% developed symptoms three to six months before seeing a doctor.
The most common complaints were abdominal, gastrointestinal pain; constitutional, urinary and pelvic problems. Goff’s team noted that gynecologic symptoms were the least common.
‘Get the word out’
The findings are significant because other studies show cure rates from 70% to 90% for ovarian cancers caught in the earliest stages, Goff said.
She has gone on to expand the research to develop a symptom-based screening tool for ovarian cancer.
Shaffer commends the Laurel Auto Group and the Ann Harris Smith Foundation for Gynecological Cancer Awareness for local teal-ribbon efforts calling attention to warning signs.
The foundation and awareness campaign grew out of the late Ann Harris Smith’s battle with ovarian cancer. She was the wife of Laurel Auto Group Founder Mike Smith and the mother of the group Vice President Matthew Smith.
“I think the Laurel Auto Group – through unfortunate circumstances – is doing a very good job of trying to get the word out and educate the public,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer recently retired after a career with the federal government in Johnstown and Washington. She has remained in the home where she grew up, sharing it with her Yorkshire terrier, Sadie Rae.
She continues to advocate for ovarian cancer awareness and early detection.
“People do survive and I’m one of them,” Shaffer said. “I am one of the lucky ones.”