Women Making a Difference: Volunteer assists fellow cancer survivors

HOUSTON – Betty White is a familiar face at MD Anderson’s Laura Lee Blanton Gynecologic Oncology Center.

White’s MD Anderson vest is dotted with nearly a dozen patches and pins to mark her years as a volunteer in the department.

"I like to think of myself as redefined in the sense of all the bad things about me went with the cancer and hopefully all the good stuff is left,” White said.

She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 20 years ago, but even arriving at her diagnosis proved challenging.

White suspected something was off—she had sharp pains in her abdomen and other symptoms that concerned her—so she went to see her doctor, who performed various tests but ultimately told her that nothing seemed to be wrong.

Unwilling to accept the diagnosis, White persisted, asking for more tests until an exploratory procedure revealed she had ovarian cancer.

"I was asleep—(I) already signed all the paperwork—and I ended up with a complete hysterectomy when I woke up,” White said.

White was 45 years old at the time, with a daughter in high school, and through she accepted the result, she was jolted by the fact that she wouldn’t be returning from the hospital that evening as planned.

After half a dozen rounds of chemotherapy White was cancer free and unbeknownst to her, about to embark on a journey that would define her life’s purpose.

Shortly after her treatment was over, White met with a friend who had also been diagnosed with cancer and was eager to answer her friend’s most personal questions—even showing her the hair underneath her wig that was only just beginning to grow back after chemo.

"It's not so much that you tell your story. It's that you let them talk to you. That's really what it's all about."

Since then, White has logged nearly 4,000 hours as a volunteer at MD Anderson, doing everything from serving coffee to greeting patients and comforting them in their most trying moments.

She was also heavily involved in the My Cancer Connection support group, a program that connects cancer patients to survivors over the phone, allowing them to talk through their diagnosis, fears and concerns about treatment.

Dr. Anil Sood is a professor and vice chair for Translational Research in Gynecologic Oncology at MD Anderson who treats ovarian cancer patients, and acknowledged the struggle in raising awareness for ovarian cancer compared to other high-profile diseases such as breast cancer or heart disease.

"It's not as common as breast cancer and some of the other cancers, however, it is the deadliest gynecologic cancer. Because of that, outreach and awareness within the community is so critically important,” Sood explained.

He is also well acquainted with Betty, who shared her survival story with Dr. Sood and other MD Anderson researches.

Pamela Coughenour works side by side with researchers such as Sood in the gynecologic oncology department and also took notice of White’s tenacity.

"Betty is a fearless warrior to me,” Pamela gushed. “She advocates so much for women who have ovarian cancer ... who struggled with it. And she gives women a lot of hope."

White shrugged off the praise, almost dismissing her thousands of hours of work as an obligation to a higher calling.

"I think there's a reason that I survived the way I did--to come back and to be able to help some of the other people," White said.

She also serves on the planning committee for the Sprint for Life an annual 5K walk and run benefiting Blanton-Davis Ovarian Cancer Research.

MD Anderson is hosting its 20th annual Sprint for Life on Saturday, May 6.

The race will celebrate two decades of research advancements for ovarian cancer, and will continue to raise funds for more research and outreach.