The news was hard enough for Libby Hull Malphrus and her family when she learned her mother, Sandy Hull, had a form of gynecologic cancer late last year. But as her mother began treatments, the battle against the disease took an unexpected twist. Two months after her mother was diagnosed, Libby learned she also had gynecologic cancer.
The coincidence couldn't be just that, Libby thought. She saw it as a calling, a message possibly from God of what to do with her life.
Now, after both she and her mother have successfully gone through treatments, the Ridgeland resident started Help the Hoo-Hahs, a gynecologic cancer awareness and support group. The nonprofit organization will hold the inaugural Help The Hoo-Hahs 5K Walk/Run on Saturday in Savannah.
October has become synonymous with breast cancer awareness to the point where most everyone knows what a pink ribbon represents. But fewer are aware of the teal ribbon. It serves as a battle flag in the fight with gynecologic cancers. September is its awareness month. Libby is hoping to one day make the teal ribbon just as recognizable.
"I felt like I had to do something after our experiences," Libby said. "There must be some reason this happened."
The family knew something was wrong when Sandy, who lives in Dale, just north of Beaufort, went to the emergency room on Father's Day last year. She was bloated to the point that she looked pregnant, was having intense pelvic pain and had been having trouble eating.
Over the next three months, Sandy bounced from doctor to doctor without an explanation for what was happening. Finally, she was diagnosed with primary peritoneal cancer, similar to ovarian cancer, at Savannah's Memorial University Medical Center, where Libby works as a prenatal genetic counselor.
Libby's father was in the Savannah office one day after the diagnosis when he picked up a pamphlet that detailed symptoms of gynecologic cancer. They closely matched his wife's condition.
"If we had seen this three months ago, we could have diagnosed this ourselves," he told the family.
Frustration had begun to mount in the family with the amount of time it took to finally get a diagnosis. When they were seeking an answer to Sandy's condition, Libby had suggested to a doctor the possibility of ovarian cancer. But the doctor ruled it out.
Sandy began chemotherapy, and the family rallied around her. T-shirts were printed up for Thanksgiving that read, "In the battle for life, I will never stop fighting." The words were accented with a teal ribbon.
Libby wore a shirt, posing with her mother and her young daughter for photos. All the while, she was keeping a secret. Earlier in the month, her gynecologist discovered something abnormal with her Pap test. She was young, still in her early 30s, so the doctors assumed it was a false positive. She went back for a colposcopy, but it confirmed her fears. She had severe dysplasia, a sign of cancer. She didn't want to worry the family until she knew for sure. She found out a few days after Thanksgiving. She had cervical cancer. It came as a shock. She had been healthy but cautious, always getting an annual Pap test even after recommendations changed that women in their 30s without issues only needed to get one every three years.
She showed up at her parents' home unannounced, saying she had big news. Her mother assumed it was good news. Was she pregnant? No, it was bad news. She had cancer, and she'd have to have a radical hysterectomy to remove it.
"I took it worse than when I learned I had cancer," Sandy said. "As a mother you always try to be protective of your daughter. It was very, very tough."
Libby received a hysterectomy at Memorial in Savannah in January and was diagnosed as cancer free. Sandy successfully went through her six cycles of chemo treatment and is in remission, but with her type of cancer, chances are it will return within the next several years.
Throughout the struggle, Libby was formulating an idea for a group that would help people who are in the same position she was with her mother. If the proper tests had been done, Sandy's cancer could have been diagnosed three months earlier. She needed to find a way to make the public, including doctors, more aware of gynecological cancers.
She took a cue from the breast cancer awareness group, Save the Ta-Tas, and decided to form Help the Hoo-Hahs. She thought it was an approachable name to a serious disease in the part of the body a lot of people don't feel comfortable talking about.
"Some of it is just making it OK to discuss these things," she said. "Gynecological isn't exactly a fun word. This can get people talking."
She planned educational seminars; she's already spoken to students at Armstrong Atlantic State University. She hopes to raise money for research or to provide gynecologic cancer survivors with some of the little things that end up making life so much easier, such as gas cards or high-quality wigs.
"Cancer changes everything about your life," she said. "But you can try to make something positive out of it."