Race to educate and cure

The Baltimore Sun

Eighteen women in Nikki Karl's family have had breast cancer, ovarian cancer or both. Ten have died before the age of 42.

Doctors X-raying Karl after she fell out of a tree at age 13 found a tumor on one of her ovaries. It was surgically removed, and she's been cancer-free ever since.

The 38-year-old has a clear family history of cancer, but more than 80 percent of women who get breast cancer have no genetic mutation or family history of the disease. That percentage climbs to 95 percent when ovarian cancer is included, Karl said.

It is Karl's mission to get the word out that breast and ovarian cancer usually strike at random.

"I want women to know the signs and symptoms," Karl said.

Karl, of Annapolis, launched the National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Coalition in March. At 8 a.m. today the nonprofit is scheduled to hold its first big fundraiser, a 5K run and walk in Quiet Waters Park. More than 200 people have registered.

Karl says she hopes to raise $30,000 to help start coalition affiliates in nine states by the end of the year. She is particularly interested in finding someone to run a Maryland chapter. Karl said it would be too much to do it herself while managing other affiliates.

The former head of the Maryland chapter for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, she created the new organization because she wanted to alert women to the strong genetic link between breast and ovarian cancers. Between 15 percent and 20 percent of breast cancer patients and 10 percent of ovarian cancer patients have a family history of the disease. Some of those cases can be traced to genetic mutations.

"We're getting more sophisticated at finding the genes," said Dr. Stanley Watkins, director of oncology for Anne Arundel Medical Center.

Women with a family history of either cancer should consider getting tested for the mutations, he said. Women with the genetic mutation known as BRCA-1 have an 85 percent to 95 percent chance of developing breast cancer and a 40 percent to 50 percent chance of ovarian cancer, Watkins said.

Women with BRCA-2 have the same likelihood of getting breast cancer, but a 15 percent to 20 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer, although more rare, can be more serious because it is difficult to detect.

Annamarie DeCarlo, 52, a spokeswoman for Anne Arundel Medical Center, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer exactly five months after her mother died from it in October 2000.

DeCarlo said she felt a "tugging" on her bladder and insisted on seeing a specialist despite earlier tests that had come up negative. Doctors discovered the tumors while performing a hysterectomy on her for another problem.

DeCarlo, who has been cancer-free since 2001, urges women to heed symptoms, such as bloating, urinary problems and loss of appetite.

"I really don't know if I'd be here if I hadn't gotten checked out," said DeCarlo, who will be walking today with friends and family.

The National Cancer Institute, a cancer research organization created by Congress, estimates that there will be more than 178,000 new cases of breast cancer and more than 22,000 cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed this year. Karl's activism in women's health began after her mother, Karen Farrow, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. The diagnosis devastated Farrow, and Karl watched her mother withdraw from family and friends. "After the diagnosis, she stopped living," Karl said.

Karl decided to enter the Mrs. Maryland pageant in 2002 to try to energize her mother, who had been a pageant queen growing up in Michigan. Farrow always had encouraged her daughter to enter a pageant, but Karl had refused until a friend won the competition. Karl saw the attention that could be brought to a cause.

"I realized the power of that title," she said.

She was crowned Mrs. Maryland in 2003 and Mrs. Maryland International in 2004. As Karl began to do fundraisers, she realized that Maryland did not have a chapter of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. She founded one in 2003 and served as president until earlier this year.

Today's race is being held in honor of Farrow, who survived her bout with cancer, and Maureen Prout, who died of ovarian cancer in January. Prout was one of Karl's first volunteers with NOCC.

"We gave her the honorary title of director of hope and inspiration," Karl said.

Deanna Linz, Mrs. District of Columbia International 2008, organized a group of seven fellow contestants from area pageants to run today. All but one member of "Team Queen" has a family member with breast or ovarian cancer. Linz's sister, Lois Anne Pemberton, was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She just finished chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

"She's just the epitome of strength and courage, and she's my hero," said Linz, who has raised $1,000 in pledges.

Jennifer Scaturro, a friend of Karl's, raised $500 in pledges. She will run today with her husband, Ken, and 9-year-old son, Kenny. Kenny's paternal grandmother survived breast cancer.

"We just though it would be a great family event," Scaturro said. "It's also teaching [Kenny] about doing something for a good cause."

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