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Fueling the Future of Research – Young Investigator Awardees and their Impact On Ovarian Cancer

In partnership with the Foundation for Women’s Cancer, the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition provided funding for two Young Investigator Research Grants, which accelerate the research of young investigators to promote the long-term success of the gynecologic oncology field. 

Two awards were granted to young investigators who focused on areas of research that align closely with our mission, to save lives through the prevention and cure of ovarian cancer and to improve quality of life for survivors and their caregivers. Dr. Sushmita Gordhandas was awarded the NOCC Research Grant for Early Detection of Ovarian Cancer, and Dr. Katharine Esselen was awarded the NOCC Research Grant for Quality of Life.


We sat down with our two awardees to discuss their current work and the impact they hope to make on the ovarian cancer community. 


What research are you working on, and what does it address?  

Dr. Sushmita Gordhandas (SG): My research focuses on risk-reducing surgery in patients at high genetic risk for epithelial ovarian cancer (e.g., HBOC, Lynch syndrome). Removal of fallopian tubes and ovaries prior to natural menopause is recommended for these patients to reduce ovarian cancer risk by up to 96%. There are studies underway to assess quality of life and cancer risk reduction after the removal of fallopian tubes with the delayed removal of ovaries. The decision to undergo risk-reducing surgery is complex and multifactorial; our research funded by NOCC aims to identify common themes and influential factors surrounding risk-reducing surgery in this patient population.


Dr. Katharine Esselen (KE): I am examining the financial impact that an ovarian cancer diagnosis has on patients and their families. National surveys have shown that ~50% of individuals with cancer experience “financial toxicity.” Financial toxicity is defined as the financial distress or hardship caused by a cancer diagnosis and its associated treatments. Our research confirms that up to 50% of patients with gynecologic cancers experience “financial toxicity.” We have learned that patients who have high financial toxicity are twice as likely to need to use savings, five times more likely to reduce spending on basic necessities, and up to 12 times as likely to need to borrow money or apply for financial assistance to pay for their medical care. Further, increasing financial toxicity is associated with worse quality of life. In one national survey study, we found that ovarian cancer patients with financial toxicity were seven times more likely to delay or avoid medical care as compared to those without toxicity. Further, we have shown that patients with severe toxicity were 4.6 times as likely to report not taking their medicines as recommended. Our research seeks to better understand the drivers of financial toxicity and find ways to intervene and mitigate the potentially devastating impact on patients, their families, and their cancer outcomes.


What is your connection to ovarian cancer? Why ovarian cancer?

SG: I am currently a second-year gynecologic oncology fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. A commitment to improving care for women with cancer has guided my entire career in medicine, leading to my current research on hereditary gynecologic cancers. I have a particular interest in early detection, risk reduction, and improving quality of life for patients with a high risk for gynecologic cancer. The field of genetics within gynecologic oncology has transformed our understanding of ovarian cancer. The opportunity to identify patients before they develop cancer or at an early, curable stage is exciting for its capacity to save lives and empower patients.


KE: I am a gynecologic oncologist and have had the privilege of caring for many women with ovarian cancer over the last 14 years. Of all the cancers we treat, ovarian cancer remains the most deadly gynecologic malignancy in the United States. Thus, unsurprisingly, it is one of the most costly for our patients. I am always inspired by the grace and dignity with which my patients approach their ovarian cancer diagnosis and all of its associated treatments and disease-related complications. As providers, we are accustomed to supporting our patients through major surgery, chemotherapy, and associated adverse effects and complications. However, what we often don’t recognize is the financial toll the disease takes on patients and their families, negatively impacting quality of life and cancer outcomes. Therefore, just as we are striving to find ways to detect ovarian cancer earlier, improve surgical and therapeutic options, or find novel approaches to treat recurrent disease, we should also be screening for and addressing financial toxicity to improve our patients’ health outcomes. 


What is the potential impact of your research on patients, etc.?

SG: There is limited published literature on the decision-making process in this patient population. Our study will provide invaluable information from the patient perspective to better understand and help guide our patients and providers in this decision-making.

KE: Our current work is closely examining the implementation of a novel financial navigator program. Through this program, all new patients will be screened for financial toxicity and other important social determinants of health. In addition, to pro-actively identify patients suffering from financial toxicity, the program will enable us to understand the source of their financial distress and efficiently connect them with resources and tools to manage the financial hardship. Through close evaluation of this program, we hope to develop best practices that might be applied to other institutions and broader cancer populations. The work will further elucidate the drivers of financial toxicity and its associated downstream effects. By deepening our understanding of ovarian cancer-associated financial toxicity, we also hope to raise awareness and provide further evidence to inform policy-level interventions to reduce the financial burden of disease for all patients.

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Stages of Ovarian Cancer

Before ovarian cancer - healthy ovaries

Stage 1 - Cancer is confined to one or both ovaries

Stage 2 - Cancer spreads within the pelvic region

Stage 3 - Average stage of diagnoses is stage 3C; cancer spreads to other body parts within the abdomen

Stage 4 - Cancer spreads beyond the abdomen to other body parts


National Ovarian Cancer Coalition

Stages of Ovarian Cancer

Stage 1

The cancer is confined to the ovary or fallopian tube

1A - The cancer is confined to one ovary only

1B - The cancer is found on both ovaries

1C - One or both ovaries are found with cancer cells spilling out from the ovaries

1C1 - Accidental rupture of the capsule by the surgeon during surgery

1C2 - Rupture of the capsule occurred before surgery

1C3 - Cancer cells are found in the fluid of the pelvis/abdomen

Stage 2

Growth of the cancer involves one or both ovaries with pelvic extension

2A - Extension of cancer to fallopian tubes or uterus

2B - Extension of cancer to other pelvic organs

Stage 3

Growth of the cancer involves one or both ovaries, and the cancer has spread beyond the pelvis

3A - Microscopic cancer cells found in upper abdomen or lymph nodes

3B - Visible tumor found in upper abdomen less than 2cm in size

3C - Visible tumor found in upper abdomen greater than 2cm in size, including disease on the surface of liver or spleen

Stage 4

The cancer growth is widely spread throughout the body

4A - Cancer is found in the fluid around lung

4B - Cancer is found inside the lungs, liver or spleen

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition

30 Years of Courage


NOCC begins as a grassroots organization founded by advocates and survivors in Boca Raton, Florida


NOCC incorporates as the country’s first national organization providing awareness and education about ovarian cancer.


The first national ovarian cancer information hotline is established (1-888-OVARIAN), now averaging 10,000 calls each year.


NOCC proclaims a week in September “National Ovarian Cancer Week,” with a declaration from President Clinton. “Walk for a Whisper” 5K Walk/Run is initiated.


NOCC and the ovarian community proclaim September as “National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.”


The organization produces television PSA about early detection and distributes to 30 states.

2003 received the Award from OncoLink, the first online cancer resource founded by University of Pennsylvania cancer specialists.

NOCC receives the National Points of Light award in celebration of the success and impact volunteers have made in their communities.


NOCC launches “Body Image/Body Essence” art exhibit by sculptor John Magnan as a tribute to his wife’s journey with ovarian cancer.


NOCC launches the “Break the Silence” national education campaign.


The “Break the Silence” campaign reaches 100M impressions.

NOCC helps launch the first consensus on ovarian cancer symptoms.


NOCC moves its principal place of operation and state of incorporation/registration from Boca Raton, Florida to Dallas, Texas.

NOCC advocates help to double Department of Defense funding for ovarian cancer research to $20M per year.


“Newly Diagnosed Patient Kit” is launched. DVD resource is made available in Spanish and Mandarin; 450,000+ pieces of literature are distributed nationwide.


The Faces of Hope® program and term “Run/Walk to Break the Silence on Ovarian Cancer” are initiated. 

Annual fundraising events are branded “Run/Walk to Break the Silence on Ovarian Cancer®.”


NOCC partners with The Dr. Oz Show to create his Break the Silence on Ovarian Cancer® campaign.

Over 1200 newly diagnosed women receive NOCC’s TEAL PACKET®

The “Ann Schreiber Ovarian Cancer Research Training Program of Excellence: A study by Dr. Ruth Perets” is supported by NOCC with a $50,000 contribution.


NOCC supports quality of life research with the GOG 0225, LIvES Study, which is ongoing and conducted by the University of Arizona Cancer Center.


More than 4,000 Faces of Hope TEAL totes are distributed.


More than 575,000 pieces of education and awareness literature are distributed nationally.

NOCC affirms its commitment to research with the newest  initiative, collaborating with Stand Up to Cancer, Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, and Ovarian Cancer Research Fund to support the “Ovarian Cancer Dream Team.”

NOCC is featured in the highly coveted showcase window at 10 Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan.


NOCC reaches its milestone 25th anniversary.

NOCC becomes an official charity partner for the New York Marathon and launches its first platform for endurance enthusiasts across the U.S - Team Teal®.


Rejuvenate, the first event of its kind, is introduced by NOCC for survivors as a retreat experience centered around the mind, body and spirit; it later expands to a national series.

Not Knowing is Killing Us is launched as a hard-hitting national awareness campaign. 


NOCC's signature Run/Walk Series is rebranded and Together in Teal® Ending Ovarian Cancer is brought to life in communities across the nation.  


Team Teal®, NOCC's endurance platform, expands internationally with participants in Greece and Canada.  

Together in Teal® Ending Ovarian Cancer is hosted at New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, a national historic landmark.


In response to the pandemic, NOCC introduces programming offering relief to women and their caregivers including home meal delivery, Comfort for the Soul, and online professional counseling through Comfort the Mind.  

Teal Hearts Network, a series of regional survivor support groups, commences in a virtual setting.

Together in Teal(R) hosts its first virtual experience, No Boundaries, and unites participants in 50 states and 9 countries.  

Signs and Symptoms

Ovarian cancer signs and symptoms include:

  • Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Back pain
  • Upset stomach or heartburn
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation or menstrual changes
  • Pain during sex