UW OBGYN Research
Madison part of international relay to end women's cancer
Gynecologic Oncology Patient and Iron Woman Lives Her Life in Defiance of Cancer

Beverly (Bev) Gehrke (fifth from left) walks airily into a Madison coffee shop near St. Mary’s Hospital, where she works as an ultrasound tech, at 4:30 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon. She looks around for the communications guy she met one other time, during a photo shoot of volunteers for the upcoming Globe-athon to End Women’s Cancer (Sunday, September 29, 2013, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Wisconsin State Capitol Square), and when she finds him, she shakes his hand, takes a seat, and proceeds to tell him a gut-wrenching story.

She was 26 years old, newly married, and generally healthy aside from a few recent, mysterious symptoms—abdominal pain, a few missed menstrual cycles, despite being on the birth control pill, and irregular bleeding. When these symptoms became too uncomfortable and unusual to ignore, Gehrke and her husband went in for an ultrasound, which revealed ascites—excess fluid in her abdomen—and an abdominal cyst, roughly the size of a grapefruit.

It was her husband’s birthday.

On June 13, 1988, Gehrke went in for surgery to remove the growth. Doctors seemed confident that it was a simple cyst.

The next morning, Gehrke woke up with a complete hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries), and a diagnosis of stage III to IV ovarian cancer.

"That’s where my life was rocked," Gehrke recalled. "Wow. Age of 26."

The surgery had removed the visible cancer, but Gehrke needed chemotherapy, which made her so brutally ill that she was admitted to the hospital for monitoring. During chemotherapy, she had a reoccurrence. The cancer had metastasized to her liver, and her doctors at the time told her it was terminal. She had between six months and two years to live.

That was 25 years ago.

More specifically, that was multiple recurrences, multiple surgeries, two additional rounds of chemotherapy—wait, it gets better—a Wisconsin Iron Man, a Boston Marathon, two professional career changes, a trip to Europe to celebrate her 50th birthday and 25th wedding anniversary, and two-and-a-half decades spent with friends and family she adores, ago.

"I’ve never given up hope," Gherke said. "I just keep on going and wake up each morning and think about what I want to do today? I don’t want to lie in bed. There’s just too much life."

Even when I was just so tired from the chemotherapy, and had bone pain, I’d get out and go for a walk, or just go for a little run," she recounted. "If that’s the only thing I did, I still felt more alive than ever. Exercise and challenging myself have made me positive and strong, physically and mentally."

Bev Gehrke has internalized this story. She tells it with a practiced stoicism—and a tinge of pride that she very much deserves—that makes, "They found cancer everywhere," sound like, "They found a crack in my engine block."

And then she put 300,000 more miles on the car.

Several years ago, UW Health and the UW Carbone Cancer Center, where UW Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology physicians like Dr. Ellen Hartenbach, M.D. have been caring for Gehrke for "many years," asked Gehrke to share her story about her incredible athletic and personal accomplishments in defiance of cancer. Read that article here.

It should be said that Bev Gehrke’s story doesn’t make ovarian cancer—or any other cancer—sound easy. Her story makes Bev Gehrke sound incredibly strong. Like many of the best stories, hers is one where the hero stares down death and uses it as motivation to do things she would never have been capable of otherwise. The villain is a terrible and worthy adversary, but not an indomitable one—one that inspires the hero to vanquish not only her foe, but her own fear.

In April, 2012, Gehrke—who wasn’t a serious athlete before her initial cancer diagnosis—achieved one of the holy grails of sports by qualifying for and completing the Boston Marathon. But that was far from the last challenge in store for her.

A month later, in May, 2012, Gehrke attended a scheduled appointment with Dr. Hartenbach, had a scan, and learned that cancer had returned to her liver, her lymph nodes, and her pelvis. In June, 2012, she began a new round of chemotherapy, which she describes as, "a lot easier than 25 years ago, more humane," but which she hopes will be over soon—perhaps by the end of September.

Such has been the rhythm of half of her time on this planet.

"You know, I don’t find that I’m terminal, because I’ve been dealing with it for 25 years," she asserted. "I feel like I’m living with cancer—chronic cancer, or whatever. It’s just my life. People ask me, am I angry? And no, I’m really not. That’s just such wasted energy."

"The cancer is responding to the chemotherapy," she reported with a smile. "The liver legions have not lit up on the PET scan at all, so things are looking well."

The listener can’t help but envision Gehrke, who is spritely but obviously scrappy, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, beating the cancer back into its corner for this round, before moving on to some bigger, definitely better, yet-unidentified challenge.

On Sunday, September 29, she’ll play a role in a global challenge alongside kindred spirits in over 80 countries, when she walks around the Wisconsin State Capitol Square as part of the local version of the International Globe-athon, meant to draw attention to gynecologic cancer’s ruinous invasion of every country on Earth, and its particularly cruel attack on the developing world.

Dr. David Kushner, division director for Gynecologic Oncology in the UW Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, is serving as captain for the Madison iteration of the Globe-athon, and preparations for the event have been orchestrated by UW Ob-Gyn Physician Assistant Lori Seaborn and an intrepid group of current and former UW Ob-Gyn patients and allies, Bev Gehrke among them.

It won’t be Gehrke’s first step against cancer, but it could be a step toward life-saving awareness for many.

"What we’re doing on September 29th is just awesome," Gehrke enthused. "This is global. We need to raise women’s awareness about their bodies. Family physicians need to have pamphlets out there. People need to talk about it and get the word out—even mothers telling their daughters the signs and symptoms—what’s regular, what’s irregular. We need to be educated."

The Globe-athon slogan is, "One step can make a world of difference." When Bev Gehrke could only physically take one step, she took it with hope and courage, and it taught her that she could take another one. And another. And another…


The Walk to End Women's Cancers
One Step can make a world of difference

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