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The climb of her life

Cameron M. Burns
Special to Post Independent

A Missouri Heights woman is doing her part in the fight against cancer this month by pushing herself and her friends in a unique endurance event.

Longtime local resident and Snowmass Village business owner Sean Patrick will take part in a “Climb for Life,” an event she organized, in which rock climbers will raise money for ovarian cancer research by securing donations for every foot of rock they ascend during one weekend in late September.

Patrick organized the Salt Lake City event to raise $100,000 for research and to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. Patrick used her enthusiasm for the sport and her many friendships with top-level climbers to organize the benefit.

“Climbing is a wonderful metaphor for life,” Patrick said. “Overcoming obstacles, problem-solving and ultimately achieving your goals. The skills I learned in climbing came in very handy dealing with a cancer diagnosis.”

Patrick was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer in 1997, at age 46, after several years of feeling “unwell.” The cancer would go on to change every aspect of her life. It would curtail her outdoor activities, her professional life, her business activities, but mostly her self-confidence.

“I was shocked,” she said. “We had no family history and I was absurdly healthy. I later found out that 75-80 percent of new cancer cases were in people with no family history. About 20-25 percent of all cancer is hereditary. That’s it.

“Ovarian cancer was not something that happened to my friends and me. It was a disease of older, 60-plus white women with no children. The women I have since met criss-crossing the country dealing with ovarian cancer are all ages, all colors, with and without children.

“Ovarian cancer, I soon found out, was and is an under-recognized threat to women’s health. Pap smears do not reveal it, as 60 percent of the women in the United States believe,” Patrick said.

According to a recent British research report, ovarian cancer is on the rise in younger women. Patrick said for 78 percent of the women diagnosed in 2002, the cancer will have spread so far the chance for survival is less than 20 percent.

According to Johns Hopkins University, one in 57 women now suffer from ovarian cancer (up from one in 70 several years ago). This year 14,500 women will die of the disease and more than 25,500 will be diagnosed with it. However, ovarian cancer caught early is highly curable, and new studies confirm that ovarian cancer has recognizable symptoms, even in early stages of the disease.

Patrick now believes her condition is related to a 1990 replacement of an IUD (intrauterine device). The new device was placed on top of an old IUD, which was not removed. Inflammation resulted.

By the summer of 1995, Patrick knew she was ill. “I felt decidedly different,” she wrote on the Johns Hopkins University’s website. “I felt unwell, like I was slowly being poisoned.” After two years of sickness, and dozens of tests, she was finally diagnosed in 1997.

Patrick’s rare form of the disease does not respond to chemotherapy, so she has been through several clinical trials and numerous surgeries, a process she likes to describe as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through the health care system.”

And, because of the rarity of her disease, she traveled all over the country for treatment. At the same time, she has become a resource for medical professionals trying to understand ovarian cancer, and in the past three years has sat on a half-dozen boards working on cancer-related issues.

Traveling the country, Patrick met dozens of women suffering ovarian cancer, and taught herself everything she could about the disease. She also wanted to know why its survival rates are so low.

“I became interested in what were the political, social and funding obstacles to coming up with better testing for the disease and more effective treatments – you know, those middle-of-the-night rants that take place in a hospital room,” she said.

“I decided we needed to frame the dialogue as a political and social problem versus a health/medical problem. I wanted to understand what were the obstacles to timely access and quality care.

“I guess part of the reason I got involved was a way of taking back control of my life. The other reason was, as I was traveling all over to get treated, I could see what was happening with this type of cancer,” she said.

Website a big hit

Much of Patrick’s understanding of her rare form of the disease came from specialists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Asked by the university’s doctors to help spread awareness of the disease, Patrick, a strategic marketing consultant, co-created a special website for the medical institution focusing on ovarian cancer. Today the award-winning website (http://ovariancancer.jhmi.edu) receives about 40,000 hits monthly from people in more than 80 countries and has recently been translated it into Spanish and Chinese.

Besides her immediate and total immersion into the medical world, Patrick sought to keep aspects of her personal life going, namely her rock climbing. She decided a climbing-related event to raise awareness while raising money for research was one contribution she could make to ovarian cancer research.

In 2001, she formed the HERA Foundation, a not-for-profit charitable organization, and began planning a Climb for Life for September 2001 in Yosemite Valley, Calif.

That event was short-circuited when Patrick suffered a relapse in July 2001 and had to be flown from Vail to Johns Hopkins. She subsequently spent a month in the University hospital and four months recuperating.

During that time, Patrick had the opportunity to discuss her ideas with many climber friends and eventually created this fall’s Climb for Life in Salt Lake City. It is being hosted by the Black Diamond outdoor equipment company. She chose Salt Lake City for its laid-back climbing scene, and the quality and variety of climbing areas.

Several of the climbing community’s best-known female “rock stars,” including Bobbi Bensman, Kitty Calhoun, Tiffany Campbell, Nancy Feagin, Lisa Gnade, Steph Forte and Anna Keeling, will offer clinics, instruction and encouragement to those aiming at certain goals of feet climbed. As Patrick likes to say, “Climbing with these women would be like a round of golf with Tiger Woods.”

The Climb for Life event is not limited to cancer survivors or elite climbers. Anyone can join in. In fact, those who can’t make it to Salt Lake City are encouraged to do their own Climb for Life. Several engineers on an Antarctic station are planning their own event for Sept. 19-22, as are groups in California, Ohio and Wyoming.

Although Patrick’s climbing career has slowed down considerably since the mid-1990s, it still remains her favorite pastime. And while she might be spending less time on the rocks, certainly her career as a motivator, organizer and healthcare expert has taken off.

“Clearly what we are doing is not working,” she said of cancer treatment. “We have been riding the chemo horse since the days of mustard gas and have not improved ovarian cancer outcome by 1 percent. This is unacceptable.

“Since one in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime, we need more innovative, scientifically sound, outside-the-box solutions. And we need to raise the bar higher for ourselves, and our medical and research institutions,” Patrick said. “We need to say `dying from cancer is unacceptable’.”

Sean Patrick also considers the idea of herself doing nothing as unacceptable.

For more information, visit http://ovariancancer.jhmi.edu/climb/.


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