She knew her body, and she knew something was wrong

School principal is recovering after treatment for ovarian cancer.

Moira Clark has always taken care of herself. She watches her weight, eats the right kinds of foods and exercises. So when her body quietly started telling her something was wrong, she listened.

The bloating in her abdomen, the gastrointestinal issues – they weren’t normal for her. And she refused to dismiss the changes as simply a natural part of getting older.

She told her doctor, “Something is wrong.” She was 15 pounds heavier than she’d ever been, even when she was pregnant years earlier. Yet, she couldn’t eat much. It got to the point where even an orange would leave her feeling full.

A colonoscopy revealed nothing, but Clark wasn’t satisfied. She went back to the doctor, who offered to schedule a CT scan. Within hours, she had the answer. A tumor in her ovaries. It was cancer.

Breast cancer gets a lot of attention; ovarian cancer, not so much. Clark herself didn’t know much about it. But the insidious disease didn’t get the nickname “silent killer” for nothing.

“When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know to be scared,” she said. She was frightened of the word cancer, of course, but she didn’t know then how ovarian cancer sneaks up on its victims, quietly doing its damage before a woman is any the wiser. Doctors refer to it as asymptomatic, and in many if not most cases, they don’t find it until it is in late stage 3 or stage 4, when it is most difficult to treat.

“What happened to me was I started to get this bloating around my middle,” said Clark, 62. “My normal weight gain was never around my middle. It was in my hips and thighs, so I knew that wasn’t right. But for many women who do gain in their middle, they might think it’s normal and they don’t go soon enough to the doctor. By the time they find it, it’s too late.”

Clark’s cancer was stage 3, but Dr. Jeanne Schilder, a gynecological oncologist with IU Health University Hospital, told Clark she was lucky. She wasn’t a typical stage 3 patient because there were no tumors growing outside of her reproductive organs, though there were microscopic cancer cells found in her lymph nodes.

“I think that was because I advocated for myself because I knew that what was happening to my body was not normal for me,” Clark said. “Then I told my story. I reached out to my sorority sisters, to my neighbors, to my co-workers, to my family.”

One surgery and six chemotherapy treatments later at IU Health Simon Cancer Center, Clark returned to work as principal of Maplewood Elementary in Wayne Township in July. It does her heart good (not to mention her mind and body) to be back at school, where 100 staff members and 800 children cheered her on during her treatment.

“From the day I left March 1 until I returned to school in mid-July, I got a card, a letter, an email, a text from someone in this building every day,” said the 2015 Indiana Principal of the Year.

One student even dyed his hair teal (the color for ovarian cancer awareness) in her honor.

Words fail her initially when she is asked about her experience at the Simon Cancer Center.

“I can’t tell you enough wonderful things about it. I just found it to be an extraordinary experience,” she said. “I felt like I could call anytime and they would call me back, and it was very personalized care. They focused on taking care of the whole person.”

Being a cancer survivor comes with new responsibilities, in her mind. Mainly, educating others. So she shares her story with friends, neighbors and colleagues, with anyone who will listen. Not to get attention, but to raise awareness of a disease that is diagnosed in an estimated 20,000 women in the U.S. every year. The five-year survival rate for all types of ovarian cancer is 47 percent, according to the American Cancer Society, but the longer it goes undetected, the worse the odds.

She is adamant that women speak up for themselves if they fear something is not right. And despite the general agreement that a Pap test (which can detect cervical cancer) is not needed annually, a pelvic exam is still important, she said.

Because of her willingness to talk about her illness, Clark inspired two other women in her circle to seek testing after each recognized the same symptoms in their bodies. Tumors were found in both women – one was not cancerous, the other was found at stage 1. Both are on their way to a full recovery.

“It’s about advocating and not being afraid to tell your story,” Clark said. “It’s about using your voice.”

Throughout her journey, she has been task-oriented, focused on the next step in treatment, not allowing her emotions to get the best of her.

In fact, the one and only time she cried was after she finished chemo, she said. It was a phone call from a hospital scheduler that prompted it. She needed to go in for another CT scan.

“I said, ‘Oh, OK, a CT scan.’ I got off the phone and burst into tears,” she said. “It was because I had the memory of the first CT scan, and I wasn’t feeling well, and it was a horrible experience. All those memories came flooding back.”

But this scan came back clear, and for that, Clark is grateful. As she greets kindergartners in the school library on a Monday afternoon, she is reminded of how much she loves her life and her job.

The few months she took off during her illness taught her something. “I learned that I don’t want to retire. I love it here. We have such purpose, and you can feel the love.”

And she learned something else.

“Once you have cancer, you realize how many people get cancer every day. When you’re on the front end of it and you don’t know what the experience will bring, for a survivor to say ‘you can get through this,’ that’s super important.”

— By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist