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In Mary's memory: Family supports research into earlier detection of ovarian cancer

After Mary Wiser was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she sat in the office of a prominent male doctor and asked a pointed question.

“She asked, ‘If men had ovaries, do you think we’d know more about ovarian cancer?’” recalls her widower, Charles Wiser Jr. “She was no shrinking violet.”

“My mother was very bright and charming, but she also had the most incredible sense of humor,” says her daughter, Nancy Wiser. “She is probably the only person I know who could say those kinds of things to a well-respected doctor and get away with it!”

Ovarian cancer, in its most common form, is typically difficult to detect until it is at an advanced stage. By the time symptoms appear, the cancer often has already begun to spread. When women are diagnosed and treated before the cancer spreads, 93 percent live at least five more years, according to the American Cancer Society. Just 19 percent of all ovarian cancers are found at this early stage, however.

Researchers around the world—including in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health— are still working to find a reliable, accurate screening test and better methods of early detection.

Mary Wiser battled ovarian cancer for seven years. For three of those years, she was in remission. But when the cancer came back, the treatments were no longer effective.

Mary died in 2002 at age 64. That same year, Chuck set aside $330,000 in his charitable trust to establish the Mary P. Wiser Memorial Fund in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health in hopes of helping University physician-scientists find ways to detect ovarian cancer at earlier, more treatable stages. He also contributes $10,000 every year to get the fund—and the research—going immediately. Nancy Wiser also has contributed to the fund.

Chuck accompanied his wife to all of her many medical appointments, several of them with gynecologic oncologist Levi Downs Jr., M.D., at the University of Minnesota. Chuck was particularly impressed with the ease at which specialists in different areas communicated with one another and collaborated on patients’ care.

“My wife had a good experience at the University,” he says. “I got involved because of the care she received—not just from the technical aspect but from a humanistic aspect.”

Mary Wiser spent much of her life committed to volunteerism and much time in her final years committed to advancing research on earlier ovarian cancer detection. She hoped her efforts would give other women a better chance against ovarian cancer.

That’s why her family supports research through a fund in her honor. “You have to ask the questions or you’ll never find the answers,” Chuck says.

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