W&J Cross Country Runner Turns Collegiate Invitational Into Ovarian Cancer Awareness Event
Washington & Jefferson College sophomore Haley Roberts was one of 346 female runners to compete in the Dickinson College Long-Short Cross Country Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 24, in Carlisle, Pa. After running the 4K course in 21 minutes and 40 seconds, she hopes to improve upon that time this Saturday at the University of Pitt-Greensburg.
However, setting a personal best time isn’t the only thing that will be on Haley’s mind. She has bigger plans for the event—raising awareness for what she calls “a silent cancer”.
This Saturday, due to Haley’s determination, hundreds of runners from the region’s college and university cross country teams will don teal ribbons – the symbol of ovarian cancer awareness – as they race the Ninth Annual UPG Bobcat Invitational at the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds. Throughout the 6K (women) or 8K (men) course, nearly 400 runners will wear teal to draw attention to the importance of awareness and early detection.
As a 16-year-old Upper Saint Clair student, Haley preparing for her junior track & field season when she knew something was wrong with her body. She wasn’t able to run anymore—an alarming concern as she considered herself in decent shape. She was gaining weight in her abdomen, but nowhere else on her body. Eventually, Haley quit the team and focused on handling what she thought was a weight issue.
“I dedicated myself to losing the weight I kept gaining,” said Haley. “I tried the Jenny Craig diet and nothing changed. Finally, one day, I bent down to tie my shoes and I couldn’t touch my toes. There was definitely something wrong.”
A CT scan was performed and the doctors found a 13-pound mass in her abdomen. The astonishing 33-centimeter mass was determined as granulosa cell tumour, a rare type of ovarian cancer, especially in young women. Four days later, surgery was performed to remove it.
“It was hard to process after the CT scan. We didn’t even know it was cancer until after the surgery. When it was first diagnosed, the doctors thought it was just a water filled cyst. Afterwards, I was a little nervous, but I was fortunate that it was at a very low stage.”
The progress in general for ovarian cancer is very poor. Less than two percent of ovarian tumors are granulosa cell tumours and the most common form is found in postmenopausal women.
Doctors have given Haley a promising outlook as they were able to remove the cancerous mass in its entirety. She was told her youthfulness and healthy lifestyle had a positive effect on the cancer’s containment.
She began running a few months after her surgery. Although she was able to compete during her senior year at USC, she was unable to perform abdominal workouts for about a year. She had one scare with what she thought may have been a recurrence. However, she was cleared and ever since, has been determined to use her running ability to spread the word about this dangerous cancer.
“If there is anything I’ve learned and wanted to share from my experience is that we all know our bodies best. You know when there is something wrong. If you don’t feel right, stick with it no matter what anyone tells you because ultimately, you are the only one who knows your body best.”
Roberts, an economics and pre-medicine major, decided to attend Washington & Jefferson College for a variety of reasons. The campus is 15 miles south of her home on Route 19 which allowed her to keep her doctors. Bi-yearly sonograms and blood tests are conducted to make sure the cancer has not returned.
W&J also provided an opportunity for Haley to continue her love of running on the cross country team. However, what caught her eye most significantly was the college’s award-winning Magellan Project which provides W&J-based support for students who wish to pursue interesting projects during their college careers. The Magellan Project is designed to assist W&J students in crafting and telling compelling stories of curiosity and achievement that will be useful throughout their college years and their subsequent transition to life after W&J (graduate school or career).
“The Magellan Project was a big draw because I wanted to find out more about what happened to me. Plus, I was told by the coaches that I would have the opportunity to run cross country. I know I’m not the fastest runner out there, but I love it and W&J gave me that opportunity to compete for four more years.”
Since being diagnosed as a 16-year-old, Roberts has worked hard to share her knowledge about ovarian cancer and its symptoms and treatments. After receiving the prestigious Magellan Project scholarship, she traveled to New Zealand and studied with the world’s leading researchers of the very rare ovarian cancer she was diagnosed with at the University of Auckland and the Granulosa Cell Tumour Research Foundation. Roberts then turned her research into a paper, GCT for Dummies, which has been downloaded from the Granulosa Cell Tumour Research Foundation website thousands of times by individuals in dozens of countries.
In September, Haley participated in the city of Pittsburgh’s Karen F. Bowers Memorial Walk to Break the Silence on Ovarian Cancer. She entered the event thinking she would be part of a running race, only to find out that day it was exclusively walking.
“I know other cities have runs for ovarian cancer awareness, but Pittsburgh doesn’t. So I thought, why not try one myself, except, I didn’t have the means to pull off something as big as I envisioned on my own. So I contacted the Pitt-Greensburg coach to see if she had any interest and that’s when everything took off.”
Raising awareness has been Haley’s goal and, ironically, something that was near UPG Head Coach Joyce Brobeck’s heart as well. Brobeck also has a reason to spread the word as her mother died of ovarian cancer.
“I had no idea about her mother when I first contacted Coach Brobeck. No clue. We are super excited about this first chance to get the word out to a large number of young women.”
Brobeck added, “The Bobcat Invitational has always been a signature event for Pitt-Greensburg. This just elevates the meaning of the entire race.”
Both W&J and Pitt-Greensburg are dedicated to spreading the word in local student communities in order to shatter the fallacies surrounding ovarian cancer and its incidence, detection, prognosis, and treatment. The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) Pittsburgh chapter will also be present to further enhance and publicize the event.
As Roberts explains in GCT For Dummies, “Granulosa cell tumour (GCT) is a rare form of ovarian cancer but the predominant type of sex-cord or stromal tumour. Very little is known about its treatment or management in the medical community due to its rarity; however, scientists within the last few years have taken more interest in it. While it is technically a low-grade, slow growing malignancy, blanket treatments administered to GCT patients tend to not work as effectively, and the lack of proper follow-up leads to the 80 percent fatality rate of patients with recurrent GCT. A GCT specific treatment plan would significantly heighten survival rates across the board, since GCT caught in early stages and removed without complications has a fantastic 90% long-term survival rate.”
“I would love to be a Susan G. Komen type of representative for ovarian cancer,” Haley concluded. “There is a reason this happened to me. I am young and enthusiastic to find out more. I would absolutely love for Saturday’s race to turn into an annual event.”