ATLANTA - They say lightning rarely strikes the same place twice. But, for the Atlanta Women's Chorus, it sure did. Last year, within months of each other, two chorus members were diagnosed with stage three, or advanced, ovarian cancer.
The symptoms are often so vague and confusing, ovarian cancer has been called "the cancer that whispers." As they fought for their lives, the Georgia women found strength... and sisterhood... in the women around them.
In a Midtown church, the Atlanta Women's Chorus, almost sixty strong, rehearses for its November concert series. There's Ann Pinyan, in her early fifties, who helped found the group. Ann says, "It's an amazing feeling. Because you're making amazing music, but it's also this connection with women."
Women, like Beth Hampshire, standing not far away. At 40, Beth says, "I was really shy at chorus at first, I'm not the best singer."
The music their practicing for their "Free Spirits" concert series is challenging. But, it's nothing compared to what these women have already faced. It began with Ann, in June of 2014. Battling repeated bouts of pneumonia, she finally insisted doctors do a scan of her abdomen. Ann says, "They did the scan, and basically came in and said, "You have cancer of some sort. We're admitting you to the oncology ward."
Ann had ovarian cancer, and it was advanced. She says, "We have our own Facebook page, so word went out that way. People started visiting. One of the (chorus) sections made dinner one night."
Beth remembers thinking, "Ovarian cancer? What is it?"
Ann had surgery and began chemotherapy, her wife Dara by her side. She says, "It was definitely scary, and there were moments of real fear. But, I knew I had a wonderful support system with my wife and our kids."
The treatment was grueling. When Ann was finally able to rejoin the chorus, bald and weak, she says, "I cried for probably the first whole rehearsal."
The women embraced her, with matching blue t-shirts and tears of their own. Beth syas, "That's when I think I realized how awesome our chorus is, it was amazing. The love was amazing that day."
Soon, the chorus was back on track. But, then, last winter, Beth - a music therapist and mother - got sick. She felt unusually run down. But, she says, " kept thinking, 'I'm tired because I'm working, and grad school.'"
Rehearsing one night, she was describing her symptoms to Ann's wife Dara, when Ann overheard her. Beth remembers, "Ann said, 'You need to get scanned. You need to go see a doctor.' The next day I went to the doctor."
And just like that, Beth was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She says, "I think I sat on the floor and cried for about three hours. " Ann and the rest of the choir were stunned. She says, "It was terrifying and sad. I couldn't believe there was someone else, right beside me, that had this horrible disease."
So, the chorus rallied again, supporting both women, who ended up in treatment together.
Ann became Beth's mentor. And Beth followed Ann's footsteps, starting a blog to share her cancer journey.
When Beth finally came back to the chorus, her shyness was gone, She says, "I couldn't believe all these women had supported me all summer, with dinners and flowers and calls and emails. It was like they had become my family."
A family so much stronger for the journey.
Ann has finished her treatment. Recently, her scans showed no evidence of cancer in her body. Beth is just one month out of chemotherapy. She says she's doing very well.
The Atlanta Women's Chorus is fundraising this fall for the Ovarian Cancer Institute at Georgia Tech. Researchers there are working on a simple diagnostic test that might help detect ovarian cancer earlier, saving lives. Right now, about 51% of women are diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer, when the disease is already established and more difficult to treat.
Some common warning signs of ovarian cancer:
- cramping and abdominal pain
- back pain
- loss of appetite
- urinary or bowel discomfort
- abnormal vaginal bleeding
The Atlanta Women's Chorus,is performing its fall concert series "Free Spirits: A Spooky Tale" November 6-7, 2015 at Druid Hills Presbyterian Church. You can find out more at www.voicesofnote.org.
To read more about the work of the Ovarian Cancer Institute, visit ovariancancerinstitute.org.