RIVERBANK -- As the tumor in her grew rapidly, Maria Verbeck heard she was just overweight, iron deficient, anemic ...
All of those things were true, but what she said was not detected was that they were all connected to a tumor the size of twin babies growing on her ovary. And the weight she really needed to lose wasn't fat, but a 20-pound mass pushing her organs to one side of her body as it took up residence in the other.
Ovarian cancer is a tough disease to diagnose and can grow undetected until it has spread too far to be stopped.
In California, about 1,700 women die of ovarian cancer every year, according to the Ovarian Cancer Alliance. It's long been known as the "silent killer." Most women who die from the disease never know why they felt a maddening pressure inside themselves that sometimes left them doubled over in pain.
Verbeck, 47, of Modesto has lived this scene in a recurring tragedy with two villains: cancer and misdiagnosis.
She told her story Saturday to a flinching audience of women wearing breezy summer dresses and elegant hats at a Te de Esperanza (High Tea of Hope) hosted by the Ovarian Cancer Alliance in Riverbank.
"I had every symptom on the list," she said. "I just didn't know what to look for. I gained weight. And when the tumor started to grow, I lost it. Then I had this pooch. People thought I was pregnant."
One doctor even insisted she was pregnant. Another doctor, a woman Verbeck hoped would understand her body and empathize, told her she had a hernia and blamed it on Verbeck's weight.
"She said, 'Lose weight. Then, we'll do a tummy tuck,' " Verbeck said, shaking her head. "Had I known the symptoms, I would have been alerted."
Finally, a hematologist told her she might have a tumor. In December 1996, doctors removed it. Verbeck endured chemotherapy and was given a clean bill of health.
More than a year later, she was diagnosed with another tumor. This one was the size of a cantaloupe. After doctors removed it, she was given chemotherapy generally administered for testicular cancer.
"And 10 years later, I'm still here," she said.
Te de Esperanza is one of those events where women dress up, drink spicy, sweet tea in old China cups and talk about things only women would want to know more about, things that could save their own lives or their sister's.
As Verbeck spoke, some women translated her words into Spanish so the entire audience could understand. While ovarian cancer most often strikes white and black women, Latinas are at risk, too.
In addition to hosting support groups, Ovarian Cancer Alliance members talk with doctors.
"It makes a bigger impression when they hear it from us rather than read a few pages about it in a book," said Lea Ann Hoogestraat president of the alliance's Modesto chapter, which was the first founded in California.
"Our goal is to educate," Verbeck told her listeners. "We have to learn about this and share it. I beg you."
For more information on the Ovarian Cancer Alliance's Modesto chapter, call 567-3112. For more information on OCA, go to ocacalifornia.com.
Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2382.