Outside the Law: Mary Phillips and Surviving Ovarian Cancer

In May 2005, I was diagnosed with metastasized ovarian cancer, Stage IIIC, with a prognosis of only two to three years left to live. Amazing to me, almost sixteen years later I’m still here. Surviving cancer makes things like pandemic lockdowns or getting older (I’m seventy-seven) much easier to handle. It’s a joy just to be alive.


By the end of 2005 I was retired from Powers Phillips, PC (the “Bitches from Hell” for those of you old enough to remember), where I practiced municipal finance law. Midway through chemo, I began attending Nicki’s Circle, a support group offered by the Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance (COCA). Virtually all ovarian cancer survivors undergo recurrences, and additional tough treatments. I put off attending Nicki’s Circle for a couple of months because I was afraid to meet women who were recurring. When I did go, I found a group of strong women who were active in fighting their cancer. Nicki’s Circle was more a place to find information and camaraderie than a place to be gloomy, although we did have a box of Kleenex always ready for deployment.


By June 2007, I had joined the Board of COCA. COCA had been formed in June of 2005 and was still very young. It was intensely gratifying for me to be part of helping COCA grow, especially since ovarian cancer is a life-or-death issue, and women, their families, and their friends were fervent about participating and helping. Volunteers would always show up and work hard. We needed COCA. COCA gave us hope.


In June 2010 we hesitantly put on a 5K race as a fundraiser. We were told we’d be lucky to have 300 runners the first year and we were afraid we’d lose our shirts. Our online registration cut off on the Wednesday before the race and ended with 1,200 runners. We had to order more port-a-potties! On race day, 500 more runners (most of us were walkers) signed up for a total of 1,740. We raised a lot of money but more importantly, people affected by ovarian cancer, including women with the disease and their loved ones, were able to be together in one place and discover they weren’t alone. Jodi’s Race is held every year in June (except during years with pandemics).


About one of every seventy-two women will get ovarian cancer in her lifetime. About one of every one hundred women will die of ovarian cancer. Because there is no test (as we have with, e.g., breast and cervical cancers), the vast majority of diagnoses will be late, metastasized, Stages III or IV, and most of these women will not be alive five years later. The Pap test does not check for ovarian cancer. The symptoms send us to our health care providers but only half of us are diagnosed correctly at first–the symptoms usually indicate other diseases, and providers are not given much education about ovarian cancer. If you know the symptoms and can help your provider, you will have a much better chance of getting diagnosed and into treatment sooner. The earlier your stage, the better chance you will have to survive. If you think you may have ovarian cancer, be sure to see a gynecologic oncologist.


The major symptoms are:

  • · Bloating

  • · Abdominal/pelvic pressure or pain

  • · Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

  • · Urinary urgency or frequency

The major risk factors are having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer and/or being of Jewish heritage. The inherited BRCA gene mutation can be responsible for both breast and ovarian cancer. Beyond the symptoms and risk factors, medicine has little else to help diagnose the disease early, when it can be treated more successfully. We mostly need a test but we have inadequate funding for research. For example, breast cancer is far more survivable but since it is much more common and there are so many more survivors, breast cancer research is very well funded.


COCA has grown enormously since I joined the Board. It has been tremendously exciting to be part of an organization so creative and motivated to help women who are in such a hard spot. Our staff is wonderful and very dedicated. COCA’s programs include support groups, education for medical students, financial assistance and financial counselling for survivors, our annual race in June, one-on-one counselling, “Comfort Kits” for the newly diagnosed, educational programs, and awareness programs at health fairs. Of course, the pandemic has required that our programs be held online.


If you or a family member or friend would like to know more about ovarian cancer or COCA, our website (www.colo-ovariancancer.org) has lots of information. You can sign up to be on our mailing list. Please also feel free to call or text me (303-514-5427) or email (maryphillips1837@comcast.net). Of course we love donations, and especially this year we need them.


I retired from COCA in 2019 after eight years as President. I love COCA but it was definitely time for fresh leadership. Considering how much COCA helps women with an extremely scary disease, I’m proud to have donated my time and effort. I recommend nonprofit volunteer work for everyone.

Mary Phillips has volunteered to help women all her life: pro-choice women candidates, the CWBA (President 1993-94), SafeHouse Denver, the CBA’s Family Violence Program Steering Committee, the Colorado State Women's Economic Development Council, the Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance, and more. Ironically, when Mary got cancer it was a kind that only women can get.


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