Showstopper: Totino-Grace senior and show choir member leads cancer awareness campaign

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 3, 2013 - 2:48 PM

Aimee Jo Ayshford, a Totino-Grace senior and show choir member, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 17. She beat it and has now become a leading advocate for cancer awareness.

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Aimee Jo Ayshford, left, a senior at Totino-Grace and a show-choir member, also is a cancer survivor who has become a spokeswoman for overian cancer causes.

Photo: JERRY HOLT , Star Tribune

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It started with abdominal pains, and it was cramping 17-year-old Aimee Jo Ayshford’s junior year.

The sharp pain made it difficult to perform an entire show-choir concert, swim and do the other things she loved. Doctors worked through all the usual diagnoses for an otherwise healthy teenage girl.

Could it be appendicitis, a bladder infection, constipation or mono?

After repeat doctor visits, the Totino-Grace student ended up in the ER last winter where the doctor noticed her abdomen was distended. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a few days later.

“This was the worst-case scenario,” Ayshford said. “Nobody thought it was cancer.”

Nine months later, the Crystal teen is pinning her future on happy endings and spreading the word about ovarian cancer. She and two dozen of her friends and family members will take part Saturday in the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance (MOCA) HOM Silent No More Walk/Run for Ovarian Cancer in Edina’s Rosland Park.

She’s also part of the push to get high school sports teams and others to wear teal shoelaces to promote ovarian cancer awareness as part of the “Tie it Teal” campaign. She’s a faith leader at her Catholic high school, leading Totino-Grace’s annual cancer awareness events this fall.

“We are really proud of Aimee Jo,” said Totino-Grace Campus Minister Andrew Blake. “She’s just an advocate. That’s a natural thing, for her to advocate for kids more vulnerable in school. It’s a natural step for her to become an advocate for ovarian cancer. I don’t think she would know how to do anything else.”

She’s also planning for a full future with college, camping and hopefully one day a family. She loves to pin ideas for all those events on the online pin board ­Pinterest.

More than 4,000 people — most decked out in MOCA’s signature color teal — are expected to attend Saturday’s walk/run. It’s the largest ovarian cancer fundraiser in the Midwest. Last year the nonprofit raised $250,000 for ovarian cancer research and for survivor support services.

“All the money goes to ovarian cancer research and programs. It all stays in Minnesota. We fund research at the University of Minnesota and Mayo,” said MOCA Executive Director Kathleen Gavin. “We have given $4 million in research in the last 13 years.”

There’s no routine screening for ovarian cancer. Symptoms, including bloating, abdominal pain, difficulty eating and feeling full, can often be mistaken for less-serious ailments.

There is a high fatality rate with the disease. Fewer than 20 percent are diagnosed early. The five-year survival rate among women diagnosed in the final two stages of the disease is just 28 percent, Gavin said.

That’s why research and education are so critical, Gavin said. Part of MOCA’s mission is to train Minnesota medical students to look for ovarian cancer symptoms. An astute ER doctor’s knowledge of symptoms likely saved Ayshford’s life.

Aimee Jo’s story

Ayshford was born and raised in Crystal in the home her grandfather built. She and her older brother Chad are ­second-generation Totino-Grace students.

She’s a manager on the school’s swim team and a member of show choir. During the summer she lifeguards, and during the school year she teaches Sunday school with her mom.

Last Christmas, a persistent sharp pain in her abdomen slowed her down. Repeated doctor’s visits yielded no real answers. She lost her appetite and felt really full after just a few bites of food.

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