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Woman's legacy promotes ovarian cancer awareness, early detection

Tribune-Democrat - 9/17/2022

Sep. 17—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — The Ann Harris Smith Foundation may be best known for sponsoring the teal ribbons placed throughout the region in September for National Ovarian Cancer Awareness month.

But the foundation's leaders say they want the ribbons to remind women to learn about ovarian cancer's symptoms so that they can catch more cancer cases at early stages.

"My mother used to always say, 'If we can just help one woman, then we are going to make a difference,' " said Ann Harris Smith's son, Matt Smith.

When she was diagnosed in 2000 with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, Ann Harris Smith understood how most women miss the early signs that could alert them and their doctors to the disease in its earliest stages, when treatment is most effective.

She was the wife of Laurel Auto Group founder Michael Smith and the mother of Matt Smith, the company's president.

The family worked together to launch the first Laurel Auto Group Pro-Am Charity Golf Classic in 2001. The event was organized to help raise awareness about ovarian cancer, with proceeds used to continue spreading the message.

Harris died of ovarian cancer in July 2002, but the dealership group continued holding the annual golf tournament to support the newly created Ann Harris Smith Foundation for Gynecological Cancer Awareness. The tournament is held annually, allowing the foundation's work to expand through Cambria and Somerset counties.

Matt Smith said the efforts are paying off.

"It's been 21 years and counting now, and I know that we are making a profound impact," Matt Smith said, noting that the foundation receives letters and cards from those who took heed of the foundation's message.

Health care providers tell him they are seeing more women bring them the foundation's cards listing symptoms of ovarian cancer to ask if they might have the disease.

"Like anything, you have to do things for a long time for them to grow and to expand and make a difference," he said.

The American Cancer Society lists the symptoms as bloating; pelvic or abdominal pain; trouble eating or feeling full quickly; urinary symptoms such as urgent or frequent urination; fatigue; upset stomach; back pain; pain during sex; constipation; and changes in a woman's period.

The society's website acknowledges that many of these symptoms could also come from other medical conditions. If they persist, women should bring them to their doctors' attention.

Last year, the foundation launched a campaign to increase ovarian and breast cancer screenings in partnership with the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center at Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber. The campaign was launched in response to national studies that showed patients were skipping their regular care during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It was meant in that same way — go get your mammogram. Go get your gynecological exam and be your best advocate for our own health," Matt Smith said. "It was very successful. They saw a significant uptick in patients coming in for screenings."

The bulk of the Ann Harris Smith Foundation's work comes in September, beginning with the Turn the Towns Teal event, spearheaded through Bishop McCort Catholic High School. There are also Teal Out games for high school fall sports teams.

"The goal is not only to raise funds for awareness, but also to build awareness of the warning signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. Early detection is key to this," said Jeanne Feathers, McCort's director of development and marketing.

On Teal Tuesdays during September at McCort, the morning announcements include ovarian cancer awareness messages. Students are encouraged to know the symptoms of ovarian cancer and share the information with family members.

"The reason we work with the local schools is to try to get to them at a younger age," Matt Smith said. "It spreads to families that way and faculty and staff. The students really embrace it."

The foundation and Laurel Auto Group provide T-shirts and decorations for schools participating in Teal Out games and other awareness events.

"We will have in excess of 5,000 T-shirts that will be issued at these various schools at all these various games," Matt Smith said. "It's a constant reminder to be aware, but also to make it fun and try to bring a different type of awareness."

Feathers said the whole school embraces the September campaign.

"This is just a great partnership opportunity and the students really enjoy it," Feather said, adding that it serves as a team-building activity for the National Honor Society, sports teams and other groups involved.

In addition to its partnership with the foundation, Laurel Auto Group has its own awareness campaign. This year, the Laurel dealership buildings are bedecked with billboard-sized messages celebrating "Sheroes," playing off the "Superheroes" theme.

Matt Smith said the foundation's outreach has grown, thanks to volunteers and community support.

"It's not just our effort," he said. "We are very proud of the support that we've been able to get from the community and humbled by the opportunity to continue to broadcast the message."


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