A Legacy of Caring and “Awearness” That Survives

In the nearly five years between her ovarian cancer diagnosis and her passing in June 2014, Patricia DiNunzio spent an immense amount of time at Ohio State’s JamesCare Gynecologic Oncology office at Mill Run.

Patricia wasn’t the type to sit quietly with a book in the waiting area or chemotherapy room, recalls her sister, Anamarie Rayburn, who often accompanied her to appointments. “She’d walk around and say hello to everyone, and if they were struggling to pay for their medications, she’d say, ‘Anamarie, get their insurance company on the phone.’ I really came to see her as the mayor of the infusion room.”

Patricia was a fierce advocate for her own care, keeping up with the latest advancements in research and experimental treatments and prompting her oncologist, Larry Copeland, MD, to sometimes joke, “Where did you get your medical degree again?”

Like many women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Patricia’s symptoms were a mystery to doctors for a year and a half before her diagnosis, which came after the cancer had metastasized. Early ovarian cancer often causes no symptoms. The most common symptoms, such as bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary symptoms such as always feeling like you have to go or an increase in frequency of urination, are often symptoms of other, noncancerous conditions, making diagnosis difficult. By the time a patient is diagnosed, the cancer has usually spread. 

Fueled by her passion for helping others and her drive to empower women to become their own healthcare advocates, she founded the Patricia A. DiNunzio Ovarian Cancer Fund in 2010. Patricia threw herself into fundraising, creating the Runway to Awearness Fashion Show that blended her zest for fashion with a desire to raise money for the fund’s mission: to provide new gynecologic cancer patient education, increase community awareness for signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, and create nursing scholarships for degree advancements.

Even now, several years after her death, Patricia’s legacy of caring for others with gynecologic cancers lives on through efforts led by her sister Anamarie and brother John DiNunzio. “It’s a labor of love,” says Anamarie. “I don’t think about the time I’m putting into it; I think about how I can make things better.”

Make things better, indeed. Recently, the DiNunzio Ovarian Cancer Fund enabled significant upgrades for JamesCare at Mill Run, including a remodeled break room that offers a peaceful respite for staff, while providing easier access to the patient care area. The fund also purchased 32-inch flatscreen televisions for each chemotherapy chair, as well as a blanket warmer to provide comfort at a time when patients need it most. Says Krista Moore, nurse manager at Mill Run, “Our patients and staff are so grateful for everything the DiNunzio Fund has done. Many of our staff members knew Pat well and have remained close with her family.”

With the comfort and needs of patients firmly in mind, the DiNunzio Fund also connects patients to Reiki and other holistic treatments from Urban Zen; provides nursing scholarships and professional development opportunities for staff; has funded research by Ohio State’s Jeffrey Fowler, MD, on provider “burnout” in obstetrics and gynecologic cancers; and continues the tradition Patricia began of providing comfort bags to new patients containing must-have items for surviving grueling treatments.

To raise money for the fund, Anamarie and John continue to grow and evolve the Runway to Awearness Fashion Show, presented each year by Upper Arlington-based designer boutique Leál. In its first year, the show raised $12,000. Now heading into its eighth year, the show raises more than $50,000 annually. The most recent show included runway looks modeled by OSUCCC – James oncologists—a new feature that delighted audience members, including ovarian cancer survivors whose attendance was made possible by a generous donor. It’s a gesture Anamarie and John know their sister, who cared so deeply for other patients, would have loved.

“Pat always cared so much about patients’ comfort,” says Anamarie. “She wanted to leave a legacy. And she has.”

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