When Joan Sagan was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1999, she was devastated. After more than 20 years working as an oncology nurse, Joan knew how deadly this disease could be. Her sisters, however, knew very little about ovarian cancer. They were surprised to learn that there is no early detection test, unlike breast and cervical cancers. Joan’s sisters, Kelli Zembruski and Sandi Wagner, vowed to raise awareness of ovarian cancer in their home state of Wisconsin.
Today, Kelli and Sandi are two of the 12 board members of the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance. Together, they organize a wide range of activities that support cancer survivors in Wisconsin and Illinois and educate the public about this disease.
Being a Partner Member of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance “shows our strength,” says Sandi. Wisconsin board members frequently talk with national staff about policy and advocacy, and have participated in this year’s webinar series. Kelli attends the national conference in Washington, DC, each year; this July will be her ninth.
One of their most popular local events is an annual brunch for ovarian cancer survivors. The event drew 17 survivors the first year; now in its fifth year, more than 60 survivors are expected to attend the April 10 event. As the event has grown, “we’ve outgrown two locations,” says Kelli. Survivors and their guests will hear from a panel of six doctors, giving them an opportunity to learn more about ovarian cancer.
The Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance also supports survivors by giving them “comfort totes”—tote bags filled with items for cancer patients, like slippers, a journal and a stuffed animal. The totes are distributed to women with ovarian cancer through clinics around the state.
In addition to supporting survivors, the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance works to raise awareness of the disease around the region. Each July, they host an ovarian cancer day with the Milwaukee Brewers. The Alliance has a tailgate before the game, and many local gynecologic oncologists buy tickets for their patients. Even the team’s mascots—five racing sausages—get into the spirit of the day, running through a teal ribbon at the bottom of the sixth inning.
Other popular events include a run in September (which will include four-footed runners this year, through a “Bark in the Park” program), and a 120-mile motorcycle ride. Bike riders leave materials about ovarian cancer in towns they pass along the route.
Sandi helps coordinate an annual Turn the Towns Teal effort in September, which goes “from one end of the state to the other,” she says. Last year, the governor of Wisconsin and the mayors of 20 cities declared September ovarian cancer awareness month.
In the 11 years since the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance was founded, the organization has reached thousands of women with information about ovarian cancer, even extending beyond their state’s borders to educate women in Illinois. For the volunteers who make up the board, their only concern is to keep the effort going. Says Kelli, “We’ve worked too hard for it to go away.”