Gayle McKenna's Misdiagnosis Inspires Ovarian Cancer Coalition

Ovarian Cancer Coalition presents the 13th Annual Walk/Run Event on Sept. 11.

(The Huffington Post has its Greatest Person of the Day, and at Studio City Patch we're always looking for someone of note to honor for their great deeds. Gayle McKenna turned a tragedy into a positive thing, and certainly exemplifies a title like this. Do you have someone who fits the bill locally? Let Studio City editor Mike Szymanski know at MikeS@Patch.com, or leave the information in the COMMENTS area below.)


More than two decades ago, Studio City resident Gayle McKenna was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

She was then a 43-year-old mother of a toddler. She was experiencing chronic indigestion, bloating, gastrointestinal difficulties and unusual fatigue.

“I was misdiagnosed for six months,” she recalled, shaking her head.  “Then, after my initial surgery the doctor came to my hospital bed and said, ‘You have ovarian cancer and have six months to live.’ ”

Refusing to accept the bleak prognosis, McKenna became persistent and proactive, ultimately entering a clinical trial that used a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs that were cutting edge 24 years ago. She endured nine months of chemotherapy and two more surgeries. Of the 14 women who participated in that trial, seven are still alive. 

“When I was first diagnosed there was very little information about ovarian cancer and no support groups—there was no one there,” said McKenna, now 67.

And so, McKenna founded the Ovarian Cancer Coalition of California to offer support to those who are newly diagnosed and seeking help. Her mission is to fund research and educate women on the signs and symptoms.  

The coalition's big fundraiser, the 13th Annual Walk/Run for Awareness & Hope, is set for Sunday. Money raised from the event will benefit research and educational programs within Los Angeles County and throughout the state.

The event will be held in Studio City at located at 4024 Radford Ave. People of any age and fitness level can participate in a 5K or 10K run, a 3K or 5K walk and even a Kiddie K.

More than 2,000 people were in ).

Ovarian cancer is the deadliest of all gynecologic cancers and is often referred to as the “silent killer” because it rears its ugly head with little warning and there are no specific tests that screen for it. The symptoms can be mistaken for many other common maladies such as gas, bloating and fatigue

The American Cancer Society estimates that 21,990 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, 70 percent of whom will die of the disease. However, statistics suggest that if the cancer is found and treated before it has spread outside the ovaries, the five-year survival rate is 94 percent.

Only 15 percent of all ovarian cancers are found at an early stage due to symptoms considered relatively benign.

“I am very encouraged by the new targeted therapy treatments,” McKenna said, referring to recent news reports of a potential breakthrough in cancer research that uses a patient’s own genetically re-engineered T-cells to attack cancer cells.  

McKenna recommends that newly diagnosed women get a second opinion, ask a lot of questions, find a surgeon who is a gynecological oncologist and join a support group while undergoing chemotherapy. 

Ten percent of ovarian cancers are hereditary. Women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are at particularly high risk. Actress and comedian Gilda Radner, of Saturday Night Live fame, died of the genetic form of ovarian cancer in 1989 at the age of 43.

Radner's husband, actor Gene Wilder, later went on to establish the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to screen high-risk candidates. He testified before a Congressional committee that his wife's condition had been misdiagnosed, stating that if doctors had inquired more about Radner's familial history with the disease, it could have been attacked earlier. 

McKenna advises those with a family history of ovarian or breast cancer  get tested for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes which are associated with a very increased risk.

Those who are experiencing symptoms should get a CA-125 blood test (that measures the level of protein released by some ovarian cancer cells into the bloodstream) and a trans-vaginal sonogram. Unfortunately, the blood and sonogram tests are not conclusive and may even produce false positive results.

The Ovarian Cancer Coalition’s motto is: “Until there is a test, awareness is best.” 

This week, McKenna celebrated her 22nd anniversary of being cancer free.   

For more information on the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer and how to participate in the 13th Annual Walk/Run for Awareness and Hope, visit www.ovariancancercalifornia.com  

Mimi McCarley September 16, 2011 at 04:12 PM
An informative and inspirational article.
Miki Henderson September 04, 2012 at 12:56 AM
This is such a great cause, everyone go!
Louise Sloan Goben September 06, 2012 at 04:34 PM
We have a team of 35 walkers coming from First Christian Church.
Barbara Krause October 21, 2012 at 06:00 PM
Gayle is an extraordinary women who works tirelessly not to mention that our friendship is one of the most important ever in my life.
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