FAVOR FOR A FRIEND: The Sandy Rollman Foundation’s Robin Cohen (left) and Adriana Way//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Sandy Rollman was trying to get pregnant. Married for six years, she was 32 years old and living with her husband in Broomall. Having graduated from West Chester University and Villanova law school, she went back to college again to become a teacher. Rollman had just completed her student-teaching obligations when she started fertility treatment.
She had a terrible time with the regimen, experiencing an array of side effects, from extreme bloating to an inability to eat to frequent urination. Rollman sought advice from different doctors who thought that perhaps she had a gastrointestinal disorder. Then, a few days after Thanksgiving in 1999, Rollman experienced such shortness of breath that her sister, Adriana Way, insisted on taking her to Bryn Mawr Hospital’s emergency room. Doctors biopsied Rollman’s lungs and found something unexpected: ovarian cancer cells. The cancer had already spread through Rollman’s body.
The diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian cancer came the next day, when Rollman was transferred to Lankenau Hospital. Surgeons immediately removed Rollman’s ovaries, spleen, and other tissues infected with ovarian cancer cells. She then began chemotherapy and radiation. “From the time Sandy began treatment, she never had a good day,” says Robin Cohen, Rollman’s oncology nurse at Lankenau. “She was sick and suffering from one complication after another.”
Rollman’s family knew what Stage IV meant, but everyone hoped for the best. “The doctors were encouraging about her treatment but didn’t discuss her chances of survival,” Way says. “We totally thought that she would pull through it. My sister was the strongest woman I’ve met—except for our mom.”
Their mother, Maria D’Alessandro, was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer while Rollman was undergoing treatment for her ovarian cancer. They underwent chemotherapy together. Way withdrew from her classes at Villanova to help her mother and sister.
Six months after her diagnosis, Rollman died, leaving an enormous void in the lives of her family and friends. Not only did they miss Rollman, but they had many unanswered questions.
“In 2000, there wasn’t the public awareness about ovarian cancer like there is now,” Way says. “There were no teal ribbons, no support groups in our area. My sister felt very alone as she tried to understand the disease while she fought for her life.”
Way and Cohen continue that fight. Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation started on Cohen’s living room floor over a box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. Way is the foundation’s president. Cohen is its CEO. As their first order of business, they formed a support group for women with ovarian cancer.
Setting the date as the third Tuesday of every month, Way and Cohen went door-to-door and physician-to-physician to distribute flyers. “This was before email and social media,” Cohen says. “We weren’t sure who would come to that first meeting, but it was standing room only. One woman with ovarian cancer said, ‘Wow. I thought I was the only one.’ Then we knew that we had to continue the fight.”
That fight once again became intensely personal for Way. In 2004, her mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, despite having undergone a preventative oophorectomy to remove her ovaries. The cancer developed in remaining tissue, turning into primary peritoneal ovarian cancer. D’Alessandro died in 2007.
With both her mother and sister lost to ovarian cancer, Way turned her fight into a war, raising millions of dollars to fund research. One of the top priorities was to find a screening for ovarian cancer. “There is no ovarian-cancer equivalent of a Pap smear or mammogram,” Cohen explains. “Because we can’t screen women for ovarian cancer, we often don’t catch it until it has progressed. That’s why it is so deadly.”
Finding effective treatments is one of the other branches of research. The foundation has donated $3 million to research initiatives, including a $500,000 contribution to Stand Up To Cancer’s Ovarian Cancer Dream Team. Announced in April, the three-year project unites experts from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Mayo Clinic, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and other institutions. “They will collaborate on research instead of competing against one another,” Cohen says. “And it’s not just ovarian cancer experts. The Stand Up To Cancer teams collaborate across fields. For example, if the pancreatic cancer dream team finds something that might help ovarian cancer researchers, they will communicate that fact.”
The ovarian cancer dream team’s main focus is DNA repair therapy. The DNA in question are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations that increase a woman’s risk for developing breast and ovarian cancers. Normal BRCAs act as tumor suppressors by repairing damage that occurs to other cells, like when they are invaded by cancer. Mutated BRCAs lose their ability to repair damage, so cancer grows unchecked. DNA repair therapy would mutate the mutated BRCAs, turning on their suppression powers.
Cohen attended the Philadelphia announcement of the ovarian cancer research dream team. “I left believing that this will be a game changer for ovarian cancer,” she says. “In 15 years, I’ve never said that. If we could prevent the disease … Every time I talk about it, I get tears in my eyes. It’s the hope that everyone has been waiting for.”
Results from the team’s research may be years in the making. Until then, the Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation continues its work in this area. The foundation directs women to clinical trials for treatment therapies that may prolong their lives. It is also part of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, which advocates for research funding and awareness about the disease. In September—National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month—the foundation will host several events, including the Black, White & Teal 15th Anniversary Gala and Auction at the Baldwin School.
Support groups are still every third Tuesday at the foundation’s Havertown office. Cohen and Way attend every one. “Just yesterday, I lost a friend to ovarian cancer,” Cohen says. “She fought it for nine years. She—and so many other women—fight so hard that it pushes us to work even harder. This friend of mine who died said the same thing that Sandy did. ‘If you can help other women in my honor, please do.’”
6 sobering facts about a deadly disease
Source: Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation
1. It’s the most lethal of the gynecologic cancers.
2. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among American women.
3. This year, 22,000 will be diagnosed with the disease.
4. 15,500 will die from it.
5. The most common symptoms are bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating, and urinary frequency.
6. Women with BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genetic mutations are at increased risk of developing it.