Countering loss with life-saving information and celebrating life — the former is the mission of the River Valley Ovarian Cancer Alliance, and the latter is the goal of TEAL Night in Tahiti, according to Blanche West. The alliance has been a force in the region for the past 10 years thanks to West, said Liz Martin, chairwoman for TEAL Night and co-chairwoman of the alliance.

The sixth annual TEAL Night in Tahiti will be held from 6-10 p.m. Aug. 19 at the Fort Smith Convention Center, 55 S. Seventh St. Participants can expect a fun evening with dinner, live music, dancing and fun games.

“It’s a very relaxed event,” Martin said.

River City Bistro will cater the dinner, and Ultra Suede will provide the entertainment, she said. There will be an open bar, and “we always have our blue Tahitian drink. It is our signature TEAL Night in Tahiti drink,” she added.

There will be a drawing for several donated prizes including a time share and a necklace. In addition to the necklace, Newton’s Jewelers donated a $7,700 diamond and gold bracelet, Martin said, and the popular photo booth and Polynesian dancers will make a return to the event this year as well.

“It’s just always been a fun thing,” Martin said of TEAL Night. “People don’t have to dress up; this is not a black-tie event. People just like that kind of atmosphere.”

Fun event, serious message

Teal is more than just a token color for a cause. TEAL is the acronym for the River Valley Ovarian Cancer Alliance’s message: Take Early Action and Live.

“We attend just about every health fair we can in the community trying to get the word out,” Martin said.

The alliance works to make sure people are aware of the risks of ovarian cancer and the symptoms to watch for, Martin said. Symptoms can include bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue and frequent urination among others, symptoms common to many ailments.

“If someone has these symptoms persist for two or three weeks, then they need to get checked out,” Martin advised. “It may be something minor, but it’s better to know.”

As with most cancers, early detection is critical to survival odds. Complicating matters is the lack of a diagnostic tool that can positively confirm ovarian cancer in its early stages, West said. Annual PAP smears cannot detect ovarian cancer, Martin said. A single blood test exists, but it is very unreliable.

“It’s a fickle test,” West said, in which the markers the test looks for can be elevated for a variety of unrelated reasons.

Money raised through TEAL Night events pays for research to create a more reliable test for ovarian cancer, West said, and the alliance contributed $20,000 last year to that research. A company in Little Rock is currently trying to develop a better test, Martin said.

Proceeds from the evening help buy brochures, fliers and symptom cards for distribution, Martin said. The alliance also pays the salary of a counselor for gynecological issues at the Donald W. Reynolds Cancer Support House, she added.

The alliance even maintains an emergency fund, she said, for cancer patients in need. That emergency fund can be used to buy gas cards for patients needing help getting to and from treatment or doctor’s appointments, for example.

All these things are paid for with donations and money raised from TEAL Night.

“The support the community has given us is amazing,” West said.

Loss spurs action

West, the woman who started the River Valley Ovarian Cancer Alliance, formed the group after losing her sister-in-law, Fran, to ovarian cancer.

“She went for two or three years without a diagnosis,” West recalled. “Once they did diagnosed her condition as ovarian cancer, she was already in the advanced stages. She died that same year.

“We had a conversation, probably the last good week of her life,” West continued, “and she looked me in the eye and asked what the symptoms (of ovarian cancer) are. We didn’t have a clue, and that’s the point.”

After her sister-in-law’s death, West couldn’t shake the feeling that both she and Fran had wanted to do something to help others understand the dangers and know the warning signs. Unsure how to proceed, West said she wrote a letter to the editor of the Times Record, asking readers with experience with the disease to contact her.

A few people did, West said, and they decided to meet. Four people showed up at that first meeting, but a few more came each time they met. Soon, the small group made connections with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, based first in Louisiana and later in Dallas.

As the local group grew, the members sought more local connections and more local control, West said. They wanted to raise money to help increase awareness, and local control meant more say in how any money raised would be spent, she said. That’s how the River Valley Ovarian Cancer Alliance was formed.

Death too familiar

Fran is far from the only woman to die from ovarian cancer. In fact, it has become the fifth leading cause of death for women, according to the alliance’s website, RiverValleyOCA.com, and one in 72 women will develop ovarian cancer.

“Anyone who’s ever had ovaries can get ovarian cancer,” Martin said. “We’ve lost more women than we still have in the group.”

Shirley Yeager lost her 40-year-old daughter to ovarian cancer six years ago. Karen Yeager Windsor was Yeager’s youngest daughter. Doctors found and removed a cyst from Yeager Windsor’s ovaries, her mother recalled, but that wasn’t the end of things. Yeager Windsor continued to have symptoms, which doctors diagnosed incorrectly as irritable bowel syndrome. When they finally recognized that Yeager Windsor was actually suffering from ovarian cancer, it was too late, and she lived only another six months, Yeager recalled.

“She left behind a daughter, 11, and a son, 13, and her husband of 16 years,” Yeager said of her daughter. “The prognosis often is not good because (ovarian cancer) is usually discovered so late.

“I knew she would want me to do something,” Yeager continued. The distraught mother made connections with the alliance and has been involved with every single TEAL Night event since the first one.

“We did that first one so we could make every woman aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer,” Yeager said.

“It’s absolutely wonderful what that organization (River Valley Ovarian Cancer Alliance) does,” she said. “Our main goal is awareness. Then our second main goal is to hopefully save a life.”

Celebrating life

TEAL Night in Tahiti was a major step in the process toward saving lives, West said. Alliance members were trying to brainstorm ways to raise money seven years ago, when Cheryl Perkins had the idea for the party theme, Martin explained.

“That first year, we had 350 people show up to Golden Living,” West said. The next year, there were 600 attendees, and soon there were 800, she said. The alliance is hoping to top 1,000 attendees this year, Martin added.

“We celebrate our survivors,” West said of the fun atmosphere at TEAL Night. “We want to celebrate that they are living, that they are surviving this disease.”

At least 25 ovarian cancer survivors are confirmed as attending this year’s TEAL Night, Martin said.

“That’s a record number,” she said.

Individual tickets for TEAL Night are $65, but there is no charge for ovarian cancer survivors.

Visit www.RiverValleyOCA.com or call (479) 424-8444 or (888) 753-2224 to purchase tickets or arrange sponsorships, which can be made in memory or in honor of ovarian cancer survivors.

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