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.
“It was frustrated because I knew something was wrong with me.” Ayshford said. “These are all the symptoms of ovarian cancer, but I didn’t know that at the time.”
It’s not surprising that doctors didn’t immediately jump to ovarian cancer.
“It’s very rare for a teenage girl to get it,” Ayshford explained.
“Ovarian cancer can affect women of all ages. The risks increase as women age. The biggest percentage of women who get ovarian cancer are postmenopausal, 55 and older,” Gavin said.
“Aimee Jo has a type that is more prevalent with young women. It can be particularly challenging for young women. They feel alone.”
Last January, an ER doctor noticed Ayshford’s distended abdomen and felt a mass. Surgeons removed the fast-growing mass and one of her ovaries a week later.
She went through chemo but still attended school and participated in show choir. She was setting goals and making plans throughout treatment, family and friends say. She attended prom and tackled schoolwork. She even took part in the show choir’s performance in Nashville on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
Family friend and show-choir mom Angie Rice helped Ayshford with hair, makeup and wigs for performances.
“She is super-positive and just honestly one of the sweetest, nicest girls,” Rice said. “For the people watching her go through, it was a humbling experience to see how she went through it with such humility and dignity — never asking for anything,”
Family, classmates, teachers and friends have rallied around her with a fundraiser and sitting with her during chemo sessions. Her brother and a dozen of his college friends shaved their heads when she lost her hair during chemo.
“Her collectedness was part of her coping,” Blake said. “She’s an amazing woman. At times, she was providing emotional support for other people. … She is terrific at advocating for others. My one prayer for her is that she’s able to advocate for herself emotionally.”
Ayshford said one of the hardest parts was slowing down and sitting around. She said she watched a lot of romantic comedies with happy endings, pinned ideas for her future life on Pinterest and focused on her relationships with friends and family. She still has one of her ovaries and her uterus, so her dream of one day having children is still intact.
“For a 17-year-old, she’s doing fantastic,” said her mom, Dianne Ayshford. “She’s had her moments of crying, but then she picks herself up.”
Dianne Ayshford said she supports her daughter’s decision to be a public face for ovarian cancer awareness.
“It’s good for her to talk about it and let other people, especially girls, know if you have all these symptoms, you should get it checked out. It’s not one of these cancers where you can get a test,” Dianne Ayshford said.
Ayshford has been cleared of cancer but is still dealing with some complications.
As she starts her senior year, she’s catching up on schoolwork and preparing for college visits and taking her ACT.
“I’ve learned so much about my life and myself,” Ayshford explained. “Even if it doesn’t work out the way you want it to, it will work out in the end.”