A Florida woman learned she had ovarian cancer just before her 49th birthday. Now she’s trying to raise awareness of the disease, whose symptoms are often easily overlooked.
At 20, Heather DeFranco started waitressing at Tom & Betty’s, a venerable Westside diner, and worked her way up there. She eventually became its owner, until she sold it when she was 42.
That was a good chunk of life at one place, a hard job and a demanding business that helped mold her into who she is today. “I’m a tough cookie,” she said. “When I want to do something, I do it.”
So when she diagnosed with ovarian cancer in June, just before her 49th birthday, she gave herself a couple of days to be a wreck, to feel sorry for herself, to get angry. She then got back to work.
First, treatment: “Tell me what to do, where to go,” she said.
That led to nine chemotherapy treatments at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center, followed by surgery scheduled for Friday — a hysterectomy and other procedures.
In the midst of all that, she realized she had to find a reason: Why did she get ovarian cancer?
That reason, she decided, was so that she might help more people learn about the disease — a “silent killer,” she calls it, with symptoms that are easily missed, easily ignored, for too long.
That’s why DeFranco’s face has appeared on billboards in several cities across the country, showing her head left bald by her treatment, along with these words: “Do you know the signs of ovarian cancer? I didn’t.”
The message was on a rotating digital billboard earlier this month on Baymeadows Road, just east of Interstate 95. It’s also been shown on billboards in Tampa, Houston, Detroit and Denver.
“I decided my bald head would definitely catch someone’s eye,” she said.
To DeFranco’s satisfaction, there are now about 10 billboards showing that message. “I have to believe that if just one woman in every city, for every billboard — if it’s just 10 lives that we could save, I’m happy,” she said.
After her diagnosis, she told her billboard idea to a friend, Jill Mangum of Holmes Media, an ad agency that works with national billboard companies. It’s in St. Augustine, where DeFranco lives.
DeFranco offered to pay for the message, but Mangum contacted Outfront Media, a Houston billboard company. The company agreed to host DeFranco’s message on some of its billboards, free of charge, as a public service announcement. A representative of Outfront said the company was not able to comment.
Mangum, though, was happy to talk about here friend. “Shocking. Amazing,” she said. “She’s one of those, there’s no ‘Woe is me.’ Yeah, it’s happening, but you can’t stop, gotta keep moving.”
Along with the billboards, DeFranco is starting a nonprofit foundation she calls Beat the Odds, and plans to have fundraisers later this year.
She has a strong support system, she said, including her husband, Craig Shryock, her two daughters, 26 and 19, and her friends. “So many friends,” she said.
She said that so many women in her position, though, don’t have much in the way of support. She’d like her foundation to be able to offer help, advice, rides to appointments, along with raising awareness.
DeFranco saw her doctor in June, feeling bloated, thinking she had a hernia. The doctor ordered a scan, which showed ovarian cancer. “It was all over the place,” she said.
Before her diagnosis, she didn’t know that the disease — whose symptoms include feelings of being full or bloated, difficulty eating or feeling the need to urinate — can’t be detected in an annual pap smear.
She’s now trying to encourage women to talk to their doctor, ask questions and learn the warning signs, so there’s as much awareness of the disease as there is of breast cancer.
“Maybe we change how women are treated,” she said. “It’s time we talk about ovaries as much as we do boobies.”
This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.