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Sniffing out cancer: St. Charles nonprofit organization sponsoring dog in cancer detection study

Published: Thursday, May 8, 2014 10:38 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 9:52 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Vallie Szymanski of St. Charles, executive director of Ovarian Cancer Symptom Awareness, and Dr. Kurt Klepitsch of the Gateway Veterinary Clinic in St. Charles are seen. Gateway Veterinary Clinic is the first member of OCSA's Veterinary Outreach Program. OCSA is sponsoring Ohlin, a chocolate labrador retriever being trained to identify odorants associated with ovarian cancer cells. Ohlin is involved in research being led by the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

ST. CHARLES – The Ovarian Cancer Symptom Awareness Organization has gotten a puppy – well, sort of.

The St. Charles-based nonprofit – which seeks to expand public awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer in an effort to contribute to early detection of the deadly disease – is sponsoring Ohlin, a chocolate Labrador retriever participating in a cancer detection study.

The $10,000 one-year sponsorship began Dec. 1, and OCSA Executive Director Vallie Szymanski said her organization hopes to raise enough money to sponsor Ohlin for a second year.

“All of our efforts are geared toward his sponsorship,” Szymanski said.

The study Ohlin is participating in is being conducted at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. He is being trained under Dr. Cindy Otto.

The dogs are learning to differentiate blood cells from people who have and don’t have cancer, specifically ovarian cancer, Otto said. The goal, she said, is to train them to identify the unique odor associated with the disease.

“We don’t know exactly what that compound is,” Otto said.

This type of training is more difficult than having dogs sniff out other substances, such as explosives, because the samples are minuscule, Otto said.

“We’re really asking these dogs to do something pretty extraordinary,” she said.

Those behind the study hope it will lead to better screening for ovarian cancer, which is difficult to detect, Otto said.

OCSA’s financial support is appreciated because the study is entirely funded by grants and donations, Otto said. She said costs are $36,000 a year for each dog.

“Their sponsorship is a really big deal,” Otto said.

Szymanski said OCSA’s connection with Ohlin is even more meaningful because his birthday – Aug. 26, 2013 – is the same day St. Charles veterinarian Kurt Klepitsch’s niece died at age 20 of ovarian cancer.

Klepitsch serves on OCSA’s Board of Directors and is part of the nonprofit’s Veterinary Outreach Program, helps educate people about the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

“If you catch it early enough, you’ve got a good shot at survival,” Szymanski said.

Although veterinarians might seem like an odd choice to help spread the message of ovarian cancer symptoms, Klepitsch said at the program’s launch last year that it is not unusual for clients to ask him and his staff about their own health.

The Veterinary Outreach Program has grown from Klepitsch’s office – Gateway Veterinary Clinic – to seven others in such Illinois cities as Springfield, Des Plaines, Chicago and Chatham.

A summer golf outing at Boulder Ridge Country Club in Lake of the Hills will benefit the Veterinary Outreach Program.

Another event – OCSA’s fourth annual 5K Dog Walk and Fun Run – is set for Sept. 14 along the Great Western Trail in St. Charles. It will include its awareness outreach program, including the sponsorship of Ohlin.

OCSA is working to bring Ohlin to the 5K, Szymanski said. She said they hope he will be able to do a demonstration there.

Szymanski co-founded OCSA with her friend Susan Roman in January 2010, just months after Roman was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer. She died in March 2012.

Roman would be happy about the organization’s progress, Szymanski said.

“She would be thrilled,” she said.

Visit www.ovariancancersymptomawareness.org for information.

Know more

According to the Centers for Disease Control, ovarian cancer is one of five main cancers that affect women’s reproductive organs and causes more deaths than any other such cancer.

The CDC identifies these as signs and symptoms that ovarian cancer may cause:

• Vaginal bleeding.

• Pain or pressure in the pelvic or abdominal area.

• Back pain.

• Bloating.

• Feeling full quickly while eating.

• A change in bathroom habits, such as having to urinate very badly or very often; constipation; or diarrhea.

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