DCI gynecological cancer physicians and researchers provide comprehensive cancer treatment and conduct research that is bringing us closer to understanding, detecting, treating, and improving outcomes for people with gynecological cancers.
Visit DukeHealth.org for more information about gynecologic cancer treatment.
Our gynecological cancer team includes gynecologic oncologists, radiation oncologists and research collaborators. We offer patients the latest approaches in surgery (including laparoscopic and robotic), chemotherapy, biological therapies, radiation, and brachytherapy for the treatment of ovarian, cervical, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. We are also leaders in the diagnosis and treatment of hereditary gynecologic cancers. The description below outlines some of the major research programs ongoing in the Gynecological Cancer Program.
We have had leadership roles in a wide range of cooperative group therapeutic clinical trials that have defined the standard of care for surgery, radiation, and systemic therapies in gynecologic malignancies. Recent discoveries in cancer biology have led to the development of new biomarker-directed therapeutic approaches for gynecologic cancers. This most notably includes the use of PARP inhibitors in ovarian cancer and immune checkpoint inhibitors in uterine cancer, but other targetable alterations also exist.
In 2019, Dr. Angeles Secord founded a consortium of peer academic institutions to better define the use of targeted biological agents in metastatic endometrial cancer. The centralized database for the consortium, which is housed at Duke, now includes over 2,000 patients.
Ovarian cancer is the most lethal gynecologic malignancy due late stage presentation as a result of a lack of effective screening and prevention approaches. The International Ovarian Cancer Association Consortium (OCAC) was formed in 2005 to better understand the genetic and behavioral factors that affect ovarian cancer risk. OCAC now includes over 100,000 research subjects from many case-control studies. Dr. Andrew Berchuck has served as the head of the OCAC steering committee since the inception of the group. About 40 common low penetrance genetic risk variants have been identified through genome-wide association studies, as have epidemiological risk factors. This provides the basis for improved risk stratification that could aid the implementation of personalized risk-reducing strategies including prophylactic surgery, screening, and chemoprevention.
Our group was awarded an NCI cancer, intervention, and surveillance modeling network (CISNET) grant in 2022 to work on mathematical models of uterine cancer to help inform strategies for prevention and improved outcomes for uterine cancer. We are working on tools to help address the growing uterine cancer incidence and mortality in the US. There are striking disparities in both incidence and mortality between black and white women, both nationally, and in North Carolina. Dr. Laura Havrilesky is the principal investigator for CISNET and this work also involves Evan Myers MD, MPH. Dr. Havrilesky is also involved in a wide range of quality improvement and health services research projects. This includes studies that assess the impact of patient preferences on clinical decision-making in ovarian cancer.
Drs. Laura Havrilesky and Brittany Davidson have collaborated to address issues surrounding the end-of-life decisions of women with ovarian cancer. This has focused on communication skills that facilitate difficult conversations. Earlier goals of care conversations with patients who have limited life expectancy facilitate earlier hospice enrollment and better quality of life while reducing hospitalizations and futile treatment. Dr. Davidson also conducts research related to patient adherence with oral anticancer medicines and optimization of oral pain medication use after surgery.
Cervical cancer is a highly preventable disease in the developed world due to the wide availability of cervical screening and HPV vaccination. In developing countries lack of access to these preventive approaches remains an unfortunate reality. Dr. Megan Huchko and Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam have led efforts, including in Peru and Kenya, to address barriers to early detection and screening with education, cultural awareness, and clinical tools - such as HPV self-sampling, pocket colposcopy, thermal ablation, and decision-making algorithms to community-based clinics. This focus on technology and implementation strategies has the potential to allow more accurate and lower-cost cervical cancer screening to reach millions of women living in low- and middle-income settings. Dr. Davidson serves on the steering committee for the American Cancer Society Round Table on Cervical Cancer, a group that aims to eliminate cervical cancer diagnoses by increasing access to guideline-based prevention, screening, and treatment techniques.
Dr. Hayley Moss Appointed Founding Director of National VA Program on Women's Cancers
Dr. Haley Moss, MD, MBA is involved in work seeking to understand challenges related to the implementation of gynecologic oncology care, including screening, cost of care, and the impact of the Affordable Care Act on access to cancer services. In 2021, she was appointed founding director of a national VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) program in women’s cancers.
Tomi Akinyemiju, Ph.D. is an epidemiologist in the Duke Population Health group whose work focuses on racial disparities in women’s cancer care. She is performing a prospective cohort study of 1,600 Black, Hispanic, and White ovarian cancer patients in the US characterizing multiple healthcare access domains and how they individually and synergistically influence receipt of guideline-adherent primary treatment, supportive care, and survival. These studies are intended to provide novel, empirical, and generalizable insights that can help identify and prioritize specific modifiable factors that can be targeted to reduce cancer disparities and improve care for all patients.
Finally, Drs. Emma Rossi and Leah McNally are involved in a wide range of research and educational programs related to the surgical management of gynecologic cancers. This work focuses mainly on the use of minimally invasive laparoscopic and robotic approaches that lead to better patient outcomes.
This spring, the "Andrew Berchuck, MD, Gynecologic Oncology Endowed Lectureship" was established in celebration of Dr. Berchuck's "remarkable legacy to the subspecialty of gynecologic oncology and to training the next generation of physicians dedicated to research, education, and patient care."
Andrew Berchuck, MD, the James M. Ingram Distinguished Professor of Gynecologic Oncology, is the third and current chief of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology (2005 to present) in the Duke Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. An accomplished gynecologic oncologist and researcher, he also directs the Duke Cancer Institute Gynecologic Cancer Disease Group, and is co-director, with Jennifer Plichta, MD, MS, of Cancer Genetics at DCI.
Berchuck joined the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center (now DCI) in 1987. Since day one he’s led a research program focused on the molecular-genetic alterations involved in the malignant transformation of the ovarian and endometrial epithelium. He maintains a clinical practice in surgical and medication management of individuals with ovarian, endometrial, and lower genital tract cancers.
Along the way, he's had the privilege to train about 40 fellows and some 250 residents. And while Berchuck has been at Duke long enough to witness some medical students become residents, then fellows, and eventually partners, the focus of the endowment, he said, is to re-establish and maintain connections with former Division fellows who are no longer at Duke and bring them back to learn about their work and how the training they received at Duke has served them in their careers through the annual oncology lectureship and possibly other events.
It was in that vein that the Division's second chief Daniel Clarke-Pearson, MD, a Duke resident and fellow in the 1970s who went on to lead the Division of Gynecologic Oncology from 1987 to 2005 — was invited to deliver the inaugural "Andrew Berchuck, MD, Gynecologic Oncology Endowed Lecture" on May 31.
Said Ob/Gyn Department Chair Matthew Barber, MD, before introducing the speaker that morning, "As I was thinking about this endowment and Andy, the one word that kept coming to mind was impact. And he has had just an incredible impact on this institution, on the Division of Gynecologic Oncology, on the Duke Cancer Institute, on the field of gynecologic oncology, and on the thousands of patients that he's had the opportunity to care for, as well as (his impact on) many medical students, residents, and fellows, and he's done it in so many ways — as a compassionate caregiver, as an extremely skilled surgeon, as an innovator, as a scientist, as a mentor, as a teacher, as a leader. And, in fact, I would say that Dr. Berchuck really is the archetype of the Triple Threat."
Tomi Akinyemiju, PhD, social and molecular cancer epidemiologist and associate director, Community Outreach, Engagement and Equity (COEE) at DCI, and Rebecca Previs, MD, adjunct gynecologic oncology faculty.
Non-Hispanic Black patients are less likely to receive guideline-appropriate treatment for ovarian cancer than non-Hispanic White patients, significantly affecting their treatment quality and survival chances.
The study, appearingonline in theJournal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, was led by Duke Health researchersMary Katherine Montes De Oca, MD, a resident in Duke’sDepartment of Obstetrics and Gynecology, andTomi Akinyemiju, PhD, associate professor in theDepartment of Population Health Sciences.
The researchers focused on whether there were any racial differences in the application of guidelines among women with ovarian cancer. The guidelines specify treatment standards such as performing surgeries to assess cancer stage or administering the appropriate number of chemotherapy cycles.
More than 6,600 Medicare patients with ovarian cancer were analyzed from a database. Of those, 23.8% of White patients received guideline-appropriate surgery and chemotherapy compared to 14.2% of Black patients.
Last month, three Duke Cancer Institute facultyin the Department of OB-GYN, Division of Gynecologic Oncology —Brittany Davidson, MD;Haley Moss, MD, MBA; andAngeles Alvarez Secord, MD, MSc—andaDCI faculty member in the Department of Medicine, Division ofPopulation Health Sciences (Arif Kamal, MD, MBA, MHS)participated in national-level events under the auspices of theWhite House Cancer Moonshot Initiative.
First launched in 2016 by the Obama administration and led by then-Vice President Joe Biden to“accelerate scientific discovery in cancer, foster greater collaboration, and improve the sharing of cancer data,” theCancer Moonshotwas reignited in February 2022 byPresident Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden,Ed.D.The new goals are to “reduce the cancer death rate by half within 25 years and to improve the lives of people with cancer and cancer survivors.”(The Cancer Moonshot was not active during the Trump administration.)
In October, the focus was on breast and gynecologic cancers.
According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly 20,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer — which encompasses the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the primary peritoneum — and nearly 13,000 are expected to die from the disease in 2022.
Despite clinical guidelines advising against intensive or invasive end-of-life care, more than half of patients with terminal ovarian cancer will receive a least one aggressive intervention near the end of life — such as undergoing chemotherapy treatment, being admitted to the intensive care unit, or being admitted to hospice, at such times that, research shows, these interventions wouldn't help prolong their life and would actually worsen their quality of life.
According to Duke Cancer Institute gynecologic oncology faculty Brittany Davidson, MD, and Laura Havrilesky, MD, as well as University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus faculty Carolyn Lefkowitz, MD, there is often a lack of understanding or absence of communication about palliative care options and reducing aggressive end-of-life care.
“What we should be striving for near the end of life is goal-concordant care, focused on the delivery of medical care in line with an individual patient’s values and goals for treatment and respecting any limitations delineated by the patient. For the majority of patients, aggressive end-of-life care is not
what they want,” they wrote in an editorial for the March 2022 issue of JCO Oncology Practice (originally published online on Nov. 8, 2021).
The editorial was published as a companion piece to a JCO Oncology Practice article by the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, and Wayne State University researchers on the role of “physician influence” on aggressive end-of-life care in women dying from ovarian cancer.
Lead author of the editorial Brittany Davidson, MD, a DCI gynecologic oncologist, associate professor in the Department of OB-GYN, Division of Gynecologic Oncology, and the director of gynecologic oncology fellowships, shares how she and her colleagues at Duke are approaching goal planning, palliative care, and end-of-life care in the clinic in this Duke Cancer Institute/Duke Division of Gynecologic Oncology Q & A feature.
William Creasman, MD, considered one of the founding fathers of the subspecialty of gynecologic oncology, was hired by then-Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology chair Roy T. Parker, MD (now deceased), in 1970 as the first fellowship-trained gynecologic oncologist at Duke and was the founder of the department’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology in 1972. Creasman is currently a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. (photo courtesy of Duke Medical Archives, circa the 1970s)
In 1972, William T. Creasman, MD, established the Division of Gynecologic Oncology in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Duke, becoming the division’s first chief. This coincided with Duke becoming an officially designated Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute, then under the leadership of William Shingleton, MD. Four years before, Duke had already made its first big mark in the gynecologic oncology field.
In 1968, Charles B. Hammond, MD, then a clinical associate, founded the Southeastern Regional Trophoblastic Disease Center at Duke, the first center of its kind in the region to combat gestational trophoblastic disease, the development of abnormal cells inside the uterus in the tissues surrounding the fertilized egg that can go on to form cancerous and benign tumors.
Using what he learned at the National Institutes of Health, Duke gynecologists were able to offer patients chemotherapy treatment to prevent the malignant form of the disease from spreading.
“Probably the thing I’m most proud of is, I was lucky enough to go to the National Institutes of Health in the mid-60s at a time when malignancy was being treated that grew from the placenta, or the afterbirth — a universally fatal disease,” noted Hammond, who passed away in February 2021, in a 2011 Duke Medicine (now Duke Health) video chronicling his career highlights. “Someone there had just made a discovery that showed it could be cured with drugs, and while I was there, we refined those drugs; expanded the cure rate to approach 100 percent. The fundamental idea of using drugs in that disease was a radical new one. It had been tried but really hadn’t been proven. And when I was there, we were able to try it on nearly 100 patients … and then expanded to the center here [at Duke]. It transformed a disease, one of the first diseases that was ever cured with chemotherapy. It was a very gratifying time. We didn’t cure everyone, particularly in those early years, and some patients, unfortunately, had complications of the treatment… that’s how we learned.”
The commitment of the Division and Duke Cancer Institute to research and innovation in gynecologic cancers continued throughout the 20th century and entered a new era of discovery in the 21st century.
From individualized treatment, including targeted therapies and immunotherapy; to lifesaving surgical procedures and clinical trial opportunities across disciplines for patients who otherwise would not have treatment options available; to the burgeoning field of onco-fertility(fertility preservation options for cancer patients); treating gynecological cancers has come a long way.
Importantly, as a multitude of treatment options have become available, there’s been a greater focus on quality, safety, affordability, and improved provider-patient communication around treatment goals and quality of life.
And gynecologic oncology faculty have also made global inroads in gynecological care and research — establishing partnerships in more than 10 countries across four continents.
Duke Cancer Institute memberHaley Moss, MD, MBA,recently joined the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' National Oncology Program Office as director of theBreast and Gynecologic Cancer System of Excellence, which aims to advance and expand women Veterans' access to teleoncology and potentially lifesaving clinical trials and treatments.
"In the past two decades, there has been an unprecedented growth of women Veterans seeking medical care through the Veterans Health Administration. In response to the ever-growing population of women Veterans, the National Oncology Program Office through the VHA has developed the Breast and Gynecologic Cancer System of Excellence," said Moss. "We will be establishing partnerships with universities and National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers to promote breast and gynecologic cancer research and increase opportunities for these patients to participate on clinical trials. We will provide care coordination services to patients who may need to go between the VA and other health systems as they navigate their cancer care."
Moss joined DCI asan assistant professorin the Department ofObstetrics and Gynecology in 2019 following a three-year fellowship with that department. Moss' research "has focused on the interface of women’s health and policies to improve the value of cancer care."
She is also apracticing gynecologic oncologistwho sees patients in clinic at Duke Cancer Center Durham and Duke Women's Cancer Care Raleigh as well as at Duke University Hospital and Duke Raleigh Hospital.
With the new role, Moss retainsher faculty and clinical positions at Duke.
Recent Publications Co-Authored by Dr. Moss
Compliance With Price Transparency Rules at US National Cancer Institute–Designated Cancer CentersJAMA Oncol.Published online Oct. 28, 2021.
Associations of Insurance Churn and Catastrophic Health Expenditures With Implementation of the Affordable Care Act Among Nonelderly Patients With Cancer in the United StatesJAMA Netw Open. Sept. 8, 2021
The February installment of the DCI Office of Health Equity's "Conversations with Our Community" — How Studying Genes Can Lead to More Personalized Cancer Care (recorded on 2.24.21) — featured co-director of the Patierno/George/ Freedman Lab for Cancer Research Jennifer Freedman, PhD, and postdocs in the lab Tyler Allen, PhD, and Sean Piwarski, PhD — all of whom shared their research into identifying genes in cells that drive cancer disparities and developing treatments that block those genes. The community forum was moderated by Angelo Moore, PhD, RN, who leads the Office of Health Equity (OHE).
“We welcome any input we can get from the community. We really want to work with the community side by side to address the questions we are trying to address and do all the work that we do," Freedman said, leading off her presentation. “We have a lot of evidence in cancer and other diseases that it really needs to be personalized, that members of different population groups get cancer at very different rates.They have cancers that vary in risk, in aggressiveness and in response to treatment.”
Freedman referenced some of these striking disparities:
African American women are nearly twice as likely as white women to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer and are much more likely than white women to die from breast cancer.
The highest rates of kidney cancer cases in thee U.S. occur among American Indians/Alaska Natives.
Rates of liver cancer are higher among American Indians/Alaska Natives and Asian and Pacific Islanders than other racial/ethnic groups
African American men are more than twice as likely as white men to die from prostate cancer.
Women in rural areas are twice as likely to die from cervical cancer as women in more urban areas.
African Americans are twice as likely as Whites to be diagnosed with and die from multiple myeloma.
White people are much more likely to get glioblastoma and to die from it than members of other racial and ethnic groups.
While this particular set of talks focused on genetic drivers of cancer, Freedman emphasized that there are other factors, including society-level factors such as racism and discrimination; neighborhood-level factors such as diet, lifestyle, the environment, pollution; and institutional-level factors such as access to getting care.
"All of these factors — genetics, what’s happening at the society level, what’s happening in our neighborhoods and what’s happening with our access to institutions all influence our risk of getting cancer, how bad our cancer is, how it progresses and if we have cancer how we respond to treatment," said Freedman. "We really need to think about these factors together, how they interact, when we’re doing the work we are doing."
Allen described his work in the lab studying cancer metastasis and how it’s different in different racial or ethnic groups and how the lab is using CRISPR gene editing to control RNA splicing. Splicing dysfunction underlies many conditions and diseases, including cancer.
"The information gained from studying these genes allows us to then develop drugs to target the identified changes in genes and RNA splicing," Allen explained. "These therapies can be tested in the lab and clinical trials and, if safe and effective, can then be used to treat cancer patients."
Piwarski zeroed in on prostate cancer disparities among racial and ethnic groups, including incidence rates and death rates. He also spoke about the group’s ABI-Race clinical trial in which they trialed a particular treatment for advanced prostate cancer in African American patients and in White patients — both equally represented — and what they learned about the differences in response to treatment. (Data presented at the 2018 ASCO Annual Meeting suggested that African-American patients responded better to the treatment, per study PI Dan George, MD, who co-directs the Patierno/George/Freedman Lab.)
Kathy Jennings (right) visits her friend Rebecca Gordon during Gordon's first chemotherapy treatment for stage 3 ovarian cancer. Gordon and Jennings are both patients of Angeles Alvarez Secord, MD, MHS. Gordon calls Secord "Dr. Angel."
Diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer three years ago, Kathy Jennings was thrown a lifeline when she came to Duke Cancer Center.
It’s October 30, 2019. The pre-pandemic “before times” in the expansive fourth-floor waiting room of the Oncology Treatment Center, Duke Cancer Center, Durham.
Volunteers in Duke blue vests are handing out coffee and making small talk with patients waiting to be called for their next IV infusion of cancer-fighting drugs — treatments they hope will ultimately prolong their life, if not cure them.
Kathy Jennings, 59, is there to support a friend at her first chemotherapy appointment.
It’s been almost two years to the day since Jennings’ final chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer.
“It was rough having chemo every week and I forget how harsh the side effects are until I begin helping a friend with their journey,” says the vibrant cancer survivor, agreeing to be interviewed about her own journey before she joins her friend in the treatment room.
After many months of preparation and an extensive review process, Duke Cancer Institute was renewed as a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center for another five-year period.
The award means that DCI retains the elite NCI designation of “Comprehensive Cancer Center”— an honor currently held by only 51 institutions in the country. The accompanying five-year grant, known as the Cancer Center Support Grant (CCSG), supports DCI’s broad range of clinical, research, and educational programs, which aim to reduce the impact of cancer on the lives of people in North Carolina and beyond.
National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers are recognized for scientific leadership and resources and must meet “rigorous standards” for research focused on new and better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.
The Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, now Duke Cancer Institute, was established in 1972 and has benefited from continuous recognition and funding from the NCI since 1973, when it was named as one of the original eight comprehensive cancer centers.
The CCSG is one of the top five oldest continuous NIH grants at Duke. Michael Kastan, MD, PhD, is the executive director of DCI and has been the core grant’s principal investigator since he joined DCI in 2011.
“Under Dr. Kastan’s leadership and expertise, scientific accomplishments with impactful transdisciplinary and translational research that appropriately-address the cancer burden in the catchment area have been achieved,” wrote the NCI review team. “The Institution is nationally and internationally recognized for its high standard of education, and community outreach and engagement are progressing at an outstanding level… The discoveries of new molecular, genetic, genomic, and epigenetic targets and of biological processes in cancer, together with the support of strong shared resources, to the research programs and the accomplishments in clinical trials, add value to the DCI.”
The review documented eight scientific clinical advances — in understanding microenvironment modulation; differentiation therapy in graft versus host disease; vaccine development for brain tumors; drivers in glioma subgroups; discovery of a genetic variation in leukemia that confers risk for other cancers; caspase-3 and radiation carcinogenesis; a new approach to breast cancer radiotherapy; PIK3CA mutations in breast cancer; and the identification of 12 new variants for epithelial ovarian cancer.
And, the committee lauded DCI’s population-based research, including “important advances in cancer risk factors and biomarker discovery,” the refining of screening guidelines, interventions to enhance patient and family experiences, new tech to improve symptom management and patient outcomes, and clinical trials and research to improve transitions-of-care and end-of-life support.
Shaping Cancer Research and Care
Duke Cancer Institute’s catchment area covers more than eight million people in North Carolina (67 counties), southern Virginia (40 counties), and northern South Carolina (6 counties).
More than 70,000 unique cancer patients were seen in fiscal year 2019.
“During this past funding period, DCI structures and programs have matured and prospered, with demonstrable increases in the number of collaborative publications and investigator-initiated clinical trials, numerous examples of high impact science, and significant expansion of community engagement activities,” said executive director of Duke Cancer Institute and CCSG principal investigator Michael Kastan, MD, PhD. “This grant renewal means that DCI continues to be a leader in shaping cancer research and care.”
Duke Cancer Institute is consistently ranked among the top programs for cancer care in America. Its 315 members and 131 associate members include nationally and internationally known scientific and clinical leaders with a broad range of expertise.
Over the past decade, DCI has had two Nobel Laureates. There are nine members of the National Academy of Science, 10 members of the National Academy of Medicine, two members that have been recognized by Time Magazine as the most 100 influential people in the world, and seven members who hold NIH outstanding investigator awards. In addition, multiple DCI members are governor-appointed advisors to the state of North Carolina’s Advisory Committee on Cancer Coordination and Control.
Since 2014, five new strategic-priority centers or initiatives have been established: the Duke Center for Brain and Spine Metastasis at DCI, the Consortium for Canine Comparative Oncology (C30), the Personalized Cancer Medicine Initiative (which includes the Molecular Tumor Board), the DCI Center for Prostate and Urologic Cancers and the Center for Cancer Immunotherapy. These, in addition to the 82-year-old Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, will continue to be central drivers of DCI’s activities in the coming years.
Sixty-seven training grants and fellowship awards worth $6.2 million were awarded during the past five years. Duke Cancer Institute remains committed, moving forward, to investing in career training and development for current and future cancer physicians, scientists and health professionals across all its programs.
This is the photo of Melanie Bacheler and her mother Gail Parkins that sits on Bacheler's desk. It was taken when her mother turned 56. Bacheler hosted a big surprise birthday party for her mom with 75-plus people. She rented a limo for the two of them to get their nails done. It was the first time her mom had ever ridden in a limo. Parkins passed away the following January.
Melanie Bacheler, at 32, was a full-time pharmaceutical company sales representative, part-time gymnastics coach, and a new mom of a six-month-old when her mother Gail Parkins was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian epithelial cancer. By the time her cancer was discovered, it had already advanced through Parkins’ abdominal cavity.
Her mom needed her, so she quit her sales job to become Parkins’ main caregiver. For two years and two months, until Parkins’ death, Bacheler shuttled her mother back and forth to Duke University Hospital and sat with her during treatments.
Parkins, a teacher from Texas and mother of two, who’d spent her career teaching fifth-grade in Fayetteville, North Carolina, died in 2002 at the age of 56.
“She was the epitome of the sweet little mom; she would’ve been a great grandma,” said Bacheler, now 50. “When she passed away, I was kind of lost. I wanted her back desperately. I missed her. I needed an outlet to channel my grief.”
Bacheler also wanted to find a way to give back to her mother’s doctors after all they’d done for her. So, in May 2002, in her mother’s memory, she organized the Gail Parkins Memorial Ovarian Cancer Walk to benefit ovarian cancer research at Duke.
The two-mile route, which started and ended at a shopping center near her house, attracted 200 participants, including 20 survivors, and raised $62,000. It was held in May, close to Parkins’ birthday. That was 16 years ago, and the event — now a walk and 5K run — is still going strong.
Bacheler said the walk’s become “a spiritual event for the ovarian cancer community” — an annual opportunity for friends and families from across the country to reunite and raise awareness and funds for the cause.
“It’s truly inspiring for the ovarian cancer survivors, some 20 years out, some 20 days out, to have a place to come together and be happy and celebrate survival,” she said.
Coordinating the event, year-after-year, has become a full-time job, a labor of love for Bacheler.
“I really thought I would just do the walk one time,” she said. “I'm proud it's left a legacy for my mom; a way to keep her memory alive, and for some of the teams, a way to keep their loved one's memory alive. I also believe this event is helping save women's lives.”
The $3.8 million or so that the event has raised since 2002 has supported studies on the impact of ovarian cancer treatment on quality of life as well as research into how genetic alterations impact disease progression and how these alterations might suggest potential new therapies.
Andrew Berchuck, MD, director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology and Duke Cancer Institute’s Gynecologic Cancer disease-site group, has been involved with the event since the beginning; walking or running for the cause and hosting an on-site educational forum.
“Melanie has extraordinary energy and dedication — she’s just a gem — and her husband Tim and family have also been dedicated to the cause,” said Berchuck. “I'm just awestruck by their commitment and what they’ve done for our program. They’ve had a huge impact on awareness of ovarian cancer in the Research Triangle area and beyond. We’re grateful to have had this support for 16 years.”
Bacheler vows to continue organizing the Gail Parkins Memorial Ovarian Cancer Walk and 5K Run, “for as long as people keep showing up.”
“Each year either before the walk or at the walk, I meet someone new, and it’s typically someone recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer, that just touches me and keeps the fire burning,” said Bacheler. “I will keep fighting with them and for them the only way I know how.”