Becky Teter shrieks as the women spill into the conference room for their regular gathering.
“Oh, Lisa made it! Yea!”
The women laugh and smile and clap.
“And Louise! Ahh! Yes!”
The women laugh and smile and clap some more.
They are of different ages and colors and backgrounds, but their wigs and bald heads hint at the one thing they have in common: ovarian cancer.
Each week, they gather in the basement of Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas to talk about their latest chemotherapy treatments and upcoming CT scans – and swap tales about their vacations and make fun of each other.
They’ve formed a strong sisterly bond, and the connection goes beyond their weekly gatherings. They bring each other quilts during tough times. They take trips together.
They’ve published two books, sharing their diagnoses. They even got Oprah Winfrey’s attention when a friend of the group painted a portrait of the talk-show queen and presented it to her during her Dallas visit last year, hoping to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.
The women say the support they get from each other is critical, considering that the ovarian cancer survival rate is maddeningly low – the five-year rate is about 46 percent.
But this is no depressing or maudlin gathering.
They’ve got a lot of living to do.
When some people hear “support group,” they head for the hills, said Teter, who was diagnosed in 2002. This group is different, she said.
“Ours is more like a celebration,” Teter said. “Life is too short to stay down. … We try to make it a hopeful and inspiring kind of place. If you need to cry, we will do it, but if you need to laugh, we’ll do that, too.”
The women lean on each other and form instant camaraderie, Patricia Ridnour said.
“They understand because they’ve been there,” she said. “Your family loves you and cares about you and wants to understand, but they really don’t understand what you’re going through emotionally and physically. …
“I can say, ‘I’m sad, I feel rotten, I ache,’ and these women can look at you and say, ‘I know, I know,’ because they really do,” Ridnour said.
Some of the women wear hats or scarves wrapped around their heads. Some show off short, curly hair that’s starting to sprout again.
Listen to the chatter as the meeting starts, and it sounds more like girlfriends catching up over coffee.
“I feel fine, other than my raspy voice,” thanks to chemotherapy, one woman says. “It’s very sexy,” a friend replies. …
“I’m healthy. I feel strong. I’m getting my energy,” one woman says. “You look really good,” a friend says. …
“This group is a true silver lining. Y’all are awesome,” one woman says. “I think we all feel that way,” a friend says.
For the dozens of women in the group, their bond extends beyond the meeting room. They swap e-mails and talk on the phone.
They comfort each other by giving out handmade quilts.
When Bobbye Parrish returned to the hospital for chemotherapy, a friend from the support group entered her room “and took the quilt out of the bag and spread it over my bed and there was just something …”
Her voice trails off. She starts to cry.
“It meant so much.”
Group members also visit women who have just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, some of whom consider the news a death sentence. When the cancer is detected early, the survival rate is much higher than 46 percent, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.
But these women show that it’s possible to live many years with the cancer.
“We’re not dead yet, so we need to make the most of what we’ve got,” said Beth Robinson, one of the group members.
The meeting continues and the women talk about how they’re doing.
They rattle off their diagnosis dates. May 1999. November 2000. September 2006. August 2007. May 2009.
“I was told to go home and die. … I’m doing fabulous. I cannot complain.”
“Oohs” and “woos” fill the room.
One woman shares promising test results, to loud cheers.
“You go, girl!”
Jennifer Holder Rowley, a chaplain who facilitates the meetings, said her faith is boosted every time she joins the women.
“In the worst of times, they become the strongest,” she said. “There’s nothing you can’t handle as long as you reach upward and outward to each other. Their joy is contagious. That’s what’s beautiful. And their love. …
“They’ve traveled miles and years – miles through this disease and years together – so there’s something there that’s really deep when they get in deep water,” she said.
The women inspired Shannon Kincaid, the wife of a doctor who helped form the support group, to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. So she created a painting featuring Winfrey holding a child.
Kincaid met Winfrey last fall during Winfrey’s appearance at the State Fair of Texas. The painting is now on display at Winfrey’s school in South Africa, Kincaid said.
The group remains hopeful that ovarian cancer will be discussed on Winfrey’s show.
“We’re still waiting for Oprah to call,” Teter said.
Throughout the meeting, the women keep talking about their friend Olivia.
“Take a glance at [the program from] Olivia’s service. It was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”
“If – well, when I pass away, I know I will – if I could have a tribute like that, it would be a great honor.”
Olivia Chang was diagnosed in 2007. When she joined the group, she was depressed and sad, the women said. Over time, she found peace.
“In the past, the thought of my two girls living without their mom killed my joy every day,” Chang wrote in a note. “However, I have realized that the best gift I can give my kids is to live a happy life even though I have cancer.”
Chang died July 2. She was 47. Her daughters sent an e-mail to the group, thanking the women “for helping mommy all these years.”
Learning that another woman has passed away is heartbreaking, Robinson said.
“We get mad,” she said. “That’s the way we cope with it. I hate this damn disease.”
But the women know not to keep the conversation too somber for too long. They end each gathering with a joke. Louise Kelley always delivers.
“A husband and wife talk about doing the coffee and he would always want her to do the coffee,” Kelley says. “She said, ‘I just read in the Bible where you’re supposed to brew the coffee.’ He said, ‘Where?’
“She turned to the book and said ‘Hebrews.’ ”
The women laugh and smile and clap. They spill out of the conference room.
Until next week, when they will meet again.
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