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Story of a Survivor

Making a difference: In 2012, Carla Donato was honored with the Rollman Foundation’s Spirit of Survivorship Award.

In early September, Carla Donato was on an unusual mission in Lower Moreland Township. She was tying teal blue ribbons on lamp posts, trees and even on traffic lights.

“We had permission from the township, and we were putting them up everywhere,” she relates.

A Huntingdon Valley resident, she was participating in a national campaign called “Get Real with Teal.” Teal blue is the color representing ovarian cancer. And September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

The teal blue ribbons are part of an effort to raise awareness of this disease, the deadliest of all gynecological cancers.

Donato is committed to this cause, for good reason. In 2007, when she was just 31, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer. It’s unusual for a woman this young to be stricken, but not unusual for this cancer to be diagnosed when it’s in the later stages. Symptoms are subtle — often considered “silent” — and they are often overlooked or misdiagnosed.

Donato was totally unprepared for the shock of this diagnosis.

“I woke up from surgery to see the sad faces of my husband and family,” she recalls. “When the doctor gave me the news, I was completely devastated.”

Not only did she feel fine, but her life had been going especially well. She had married one year earlier, and she and her husband Michael had a new home. She also had a new job.

But now she had a new — and unwelcome — identity as an ovarian cancer patient. Her treatment started with a complete hysterectomy (uterus and both ovaries removed), followed by four months of intensive chemotherapy.

“What hit me hardest was mourning my fertility,” she says. “With ovarian cancer, you’re not only facing cancer but also the loss of fertility. I felt anxiety, depression - — every single emotion out there.”

A turning point came when she learned about the Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation. The nonprofit, based in Delaware County, is named in memory of a young woman diagnosed with the disease at age 32. Because her symptoms went undetected, she lost her battle six months after treatment ended.

The two founders of the Rollman Foundation both knew Sandy Rollman well. Adriana Way was Rollman’s sister, and Robin Cohen was the nurse who took care of her.

“She struggled and fought harder than anyone I’ve ever known,” says Cohen. “When she died, we couldn’t give up her fight.”

So Cohen and Way joined forces in 2000 and founded the Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation with the goal of raising awareness and providing support and education about this deadly disease.

Donato met both of them when she participated in her first major Rollman Foundation event, the “Sandy Sprint,” a 5k walk or run held in Fairmount Park each April. It draws over 4,000 participants each year, including cancer patients and survivors, their friends and families, and those who come to honor the memory of a victim.

Donato’s friends rallied and formed a team numbering 60. They ordered team T-shirts that read, “Crazy Sexy Carla” (the words were based on a book about a young cancer survivor that was titled Crazy Sexy Cancer). Even though she was weak from grueling chemotherapy treatment, Donata was determined to participate. She joined her teammates for most of the walk, and did the rest in a wheelchair.

“It was inspirational to see so many people joining in the fight against ovarian cancer,” she says.

Afterward, she had a chance to get acquainted with the two Rollman Foundation founders.

“There was an immediate connection,” she recalls. “They were young and full of passion for the cause.”

After that event, Donata became even more involved with Rollman Foundation activities. One priority was attending monthly meetings for ovarian survivors. Called the Survivors Network, it provides an ongoing support network.

“I’ve met women from all walks of life and all ages,” she says. “You realize that you’re not alone. They got through it and I will, too.”

Donato has also been an eager volunteer for Rollman’s various educational and fundraising projects.

Her involvement has been so noteworthy that in 2012 she was honored with the Rollman Foundation’s Spirit of Survivorship Award.

“It was a total surprise,” says Donato, who was presented with the award at the Teal Gala, an annual fundraising event held in September.

The Get Real with Teal campaign also takes place in September. So it’s a month when activists like Donato are especially busy. That’s why several weeks ago, she and her husband, together with her parents and sister, put up a total of 75 teal blue ribbons on Red Lion Road, on Philmont Avenue and elsewhere in the area. They also put up posters on storefronts. Local businesses have been cooperative about this. These posters listed the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer because they are often overlooked or mistaken for other ailments.

It’s been seven years since Donato’s diagnosis. Although she never would have wished to have this disease, it has given her a new perspective.

“It’s helped me realize how precious each day is, how precious my life is,” she reflects. “You never know what life has in store. I appreciate the blessings of each day so much more than before.” ••

For information about the Rollman Foundation and its activities, visit www.sandyovarian.org or call 610–446–2272.

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