Well Being: A long walk to grieve, to fight ovarian cancer

Dave Brown will walk across the country in memory of his wife.
Dave Brown will walk across the country in memory of his wife. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2013

It happened so fast.

In February 2011, Joan Brown seemed to be in perfect health. In March, she began feeling tired and listless. In April, an ultrasound of her abdomen found a tumor on an ovary. In May, she had surgery to remove both ovaries as well as her uterus.

"They got out everything possible," says her husband, Dave. "All that was left were microscopic traces."

Joan's doctor at Lankenau Medical Center had warned her that her form of ovarian cancer was aggressive. He was right. In June, as Joan was considering chemotherapy, the cancer returned with a vengeance, and a new tumor took root.

Joan faced a dire choice. She could begin chemo in the hope it would tame the tumor, or she could transfer to hospice care. Then, a ray of hope: Joan rebounded enough to go home, where she spent the month of July. On Aug. 1, 2011, she died, at age 58, another victim of the "silent disease," so called because its symptoms are so varied and subtle.

Dave Brown was devastated. After visiting relatives in Ohio for consolation, he returned via a route that took him to northwestern Pennsylvania. He and Joan, avid walkers and members of the Liberty Bell Wanderers, a local chapter of the American Volkssport Association, had planned to go hiking there before she fell ill. Brown decided to walk those same paths, partly to relieve his grief, partly in memory of Joan.

Now, Brown, 61, has another walk in mind, a very long walk, again in honor of his late wife. On Feb. 28, he will set out from Atlantic City, intending to walk nearly 3,000 miles across the United States. He plans to walk about 14 miles a day, at a pace of about 4 miles an hour, and to finish Oct. 12 in San Francisco.

Brown spent eight days planning the route, which will follow U.S. Route 40, the Old National Road, as far as St. Louis, where he will pick up U.S. Route 50. Brown has been fascinated by the Old National Road for years.

A while back, Joan, aware of his interest, gave him a book about the highway, which was conceived by George Washington and implemented by Thomas Jefferson to help open the western frontier.

Dave, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy, met Joan on Halloween in 1970 after Navy played Notre Dame in Philadelphia. Dave and a friend went to a dance afterward at Chestnut Hill College. Joan, a Norristown girl who was studying at Gwynedd Mercy College, came with a girlfriend.

The dance was held in a small gym with sawdust on the floor. Dave was rebuffed by another young woman when he requested a dance. Then he saw Joan, a petite blonde who was standing under a floodlight, seemingly bathed in an aura. She agreed to a dance, and they were inseparable the rest of the evening. They were married in 1975, and after Dave fulfilled his Navy obligation by serving as a carrier transport pilot for six years, they moved to Collegeville, buying a two-story Colonial, where Dave still lives.

Dave, who specializes in information technology, worked for Lukens Steel in Coatesville for 20 years, then took a job at Vanguard. After Joan died, he watched a film titled My Run about Terry Hitchcock, whose wife died of breast cancer, making him the single parent of three young children. In 1996, Hitchcock, to honor his late wife and salute single parents, ran from Minneapolis to the Atlanta Summer Olympics, covering the distance of a marathon every day for 75 days.

"Inside of a second, I knew what I was going to do," Brown says, "as well as how I was going to do it, and by what route."

The route, at least part of it, would be the Old National Road. For 30 years, Brown had jogged at lunchtime, logging 8,900 miles. Often, to distract himself, he would imagine jogging along U.S. Route 40 as it was in the 1950s.

Moreover, he knew he was in far better shape than Hitchcock was when he began. "If he could run in the shape he was," reflected Brown, who is vice president of the Liberty Bell Wanderers, "I knew I could walk."

Brown retired from Vanguard in June. From July until now, he has been training hard and regularly. Every day, he walks three hours, or cycles three hours, or works out at the gym two hours, including an hour of knee exercises.

Brown, an Ohio native, is excited that the Old National Road will take him through the Buckeye State, past a cemetery where ancestors are buried as well as the homes of four aunts. He plans to photograph various spots along the way that were captured in the book Joan gave him, published in 1983, and an earlier book published in 1953. He expects to see dramatic changes, though some vistas may be just as they were 60 years ago.

The cross-country walk is a way to grieve, Brown admits, but he also has a higher purpose, to spread word about ovarian cancer. He hopes to raise $110,000 for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Already, he has collected $4,000 from family, friends, and colleagues at Vanguard.

"I want to urge women: Listen to your body," Brown says. "If you begin feeling symptoms such as abdominal pressure, bloating, nausea, indigestion, fatigue, and backaches, go see a doctor. It's better to deal with it sooner than later."

For information: Visit www.ocjoan.blogspot.com, or contact Dave Brown at ocmdbreeze@aol.com or 610-906-6252.Or if you would like to donate to Dave's cause, please check the ovarian cancer donation site, here.

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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