GREENSBORO — After finding herself in the community of women diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, Marie Burris Wood called the nonprofit She Rocks Wilmington with the hope of expanding their reach about a disease with symptoms that don’t stand out as it causes damage.
She had researched available organizations already set up to raise awareness about the deadly disease and wanted to start an affiliated group here.
“Many women think they might have irritable bowel syndrome — and are even treated for months for another health issue before they get an accurate diagnosis,” Wood told the News & Record in 2019, two years after her diagnosis.
Wood, 56, who was generous and dogged, died Monday after dedicating her life to getting information into the hands of others through She Rocks the Triad, which just last month created an endowment at Cone Health. Over the years the group has raised and spent more than $200,000 locally for education, research and a means for early detection and support for those with ovarian cancer.
People are also reading…
The ovarian cancer awareness group’s annual fundraiser dinner takes place each September on the grounds of Summerfield Farms’ Pole Barn, and until recently, she would take part in planning Zoom meetings while in a chair undergoing chemo and infusion treatments.
“She said if getting the resources in the hands of even one woman can make a difference, I want to do that,” said her friend and fellow interior designer Kasey Stone, who is also one of the founding members of She Rocks the Triad. “She didn’t want anyone else to be caught by surprise like she was.”
Wood, the group’s president, had four adult children and in that 2019 interview called husband and college sweetheart Tom Wood her real-life hero.
“He perseveres and supports me in all my endeavors,” Wood said. “He is not afraid of what life has thrown at us and has been the grounding rock to me for more than 33 years.”
Wood, known for her interior design work around the world, also remodeled the sanctuary at her church, Westminster Presbyterian.
“She was an inspiration to a lot of folks,” said the Rev. Ernie Thompson, Westminster’s senior pastor. “She had a joy about her and a light that made people want to be around her.”
It was in late 2016, after feeling unusually tired, that Wood thought about making an appointment to see her doctor. But the holidays were coming up and she put it off for about two months, she would later say. While preparing for her upcoming colonoscopy in early 2017, her doctor had her blood tested and found markers for cancer.
Because the symptoms can be confused with many other conditions or simple aging — fatigue, constipation, unexplained weight loss and upset stomach among them — they are easy to ignore. A Pap smear and pelvic exam would not have detected ovarian cancer.
Wood didn’t have cancer in her family history and little knowledge of ovarian cancer.
“The first thing that I did as I looked out this big picture window in my dining room — I just dropped to my knees,” Wood said in a video posted to the group’s website, “and I prayed for my children and my husband.”
Because there are no early diagnostic screenings for ovarian cancer, according to the group’s research, 75% of patients with ovarian cancer are in the later stages.
One in 78 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in her lifetime, leading to 21,000 cases and 14,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the group’s research.
“Ovarian cancer is one of the most lethal cancers that exist and it’s also one of the most underfunded,” said Brittany Fountain, chairman of the board for She Rocks Wilmington. “Marie is the sole reason that She Rocks exists in the Triad area.”
The Wilmington group had already begun funding groundbreaking ovarian cancer research at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill.
Wood had come to realize that the disease was not talked about and that women needed better options. She invited Stone to lunch to share the diagnosis. The two were the design team for Meridien Marketing.
“I got teary-eyed and she said, ‘Oh no, we are not doing that,’” Stone recalled. “She said we are going to fight this.”
In early 2018 she reached out to a large group of women who were her friends from work and church and her social circle to see if they would be interested in starting an organization to raise money and awareness for ovarian cancer research.
Later that year, the group held its first annual She Rocks fundraising dinner.
In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, participants picked up their gourmet meals in a makeshift drive-thru, and then everyone went home and signed onto a virtual program with live music.
Marie Wood was not about to let the cancer take others, if she could help it. She fought to get information into the hands of women about a disease that is silent and kills moms, grandmothers, sisters and daughters.
Early detection is critical, and during the group’s awareness events, women are invited to hear the stories of others who have fought or are fighting ovarian cancer and medical professionals. Some participants bring their mothers, daughters and friends.
“One of the women got in the car with her friend afterward and said, ‘I have some of those signs,’ “ said Martha Pfeiffer, chairwoman of the group’s Triad steering committee.
Doctors later found a tumor on her ovary, although it wasn’t cancerous.
Ovarian cancer is three times more lethal than breast cancer and has almost no symptoms until it is advanced, Wood found.
Since 2018, the She Rocks groups have raised more than $1.5 million, with some of money in the Triad going to the Alight Program at Cone Health Cancer Center, which helped expand that group’s work to support women undergoing treatment for all gynecological cancers through resources and financial assistance.
“She was a very positive person and if she ran into a roadblock she would figure out a detour,” Pfeiffer said. “She didn’t really hear no. She would say there is always a way.”
The group will remember Wood as part of its upcoming fundraiser, which includes a silent auction. More importantly, they will continue the work.
“One of the things that Marie always challenged us to do — and we are so committed to — is the sustainability of this organization,” Pfeiffer said. “It can’t be about any one of us, it has to be about getting the word out and less women being caught off guard by this diagnosis.”
As late as July, she was calling and texting Pfeiffer, Stone and others with ideas even while turning over responsibilities to various members who now collectively wonder how she did it all.
In 2019, she was asked if she had one super power, what would it be. Her response?
“To wipe out all cancers.”