Johanna’s Legacy: Tribute gift supports better treatments for ovarian cancer

Give women the facts and they will take care of their health. That’s the premise behind the philanthropic drive of Sheryl Silver, a leading national advocate for ovarian cancer awareness.

“Early diagnosis of ovarian cancer is crucial to long-term survival,” Sheryl says. “It’s very important that women be armed with information about risk factors and common symptoms of this disease because symptoms are often incorrectly attributed to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), perimenopause or menopause. Sadly, by the time many patients receive a correct diagnosis, the cancer has metastasized.”

The five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer patients with a localized tumor is 92 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. That figure drops to 30 percent when the cancer has spread distantly to other parts of the body. For specialized centers like Karmanos, the survival rate for Stage III/IV patients is typically better, due to access to expert Gynecologic Oncologists, clinical trials and newer, targeted therapies.

To help late-stage and recurrent ovarian cancer patients, Sheryl made a generous tribute gift through the Silver Family Foundation for Ovarian Cancer Research. This gift established Johanna’s Fund for Ovarian Cancer Research.

The funds supported the research of Ira Winer, M.D., Ph.D., an ovarian cancer specialist and member of the Gynecologic Oncology and Phase I Developmental Therapeutic Multidisciplinary Teams at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. Dr. Winer is focused on developing new ovarian cancer fighting drugs that may help improve outcomes for all patients. The funding has allowed a promising new treatment to be brought to the clinics in the form of a clinical trial at Karmanos.

The fund is named in honor of Sheryl’s sister, Johanna Silver Gordon, a Southfield high school English teacher who passed away in 2000 at age 58 after a valiant battle with ovarian cancer. The cancer diagnosis was a shock to Johanna, who had led a healthy and active lifestyle. Her doctor initially attributed her symptoms to perimenopause but tests months later revealed the true nature of her illness.

“Johanna said she had played the best game of tennis in her life the day before surgery revealed she had advanced-stage ovarian cancer,” says Sheryl, who divides her time between Bloomfield Hills and Hallandale Beach, Florida. “Unfortunately, far too many women have similar stories about being blindsided with an advanced ovarian cancer diagnosis.”

Sheryl’s mission to promote ovarian cancer awareness was the springboard for her proposal of Johanna’s Law. Johanna’s Law authorized The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create and administer a national education and awareness program to provide women and health care providers the latest information about the symptoms and risk factors of ovarian and other major gynecologic cancers. Authored by Michigan Congressman Sander Levin, in whose district Johanna taught, Johanna’s Law ultimately passed the U.S. House and Senate by unanimous consent. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law in 2007.

Since then, researchers have made progress in developing better treatments for ovarian cancer, and awareness of the symptoms and risk factors has grown.

However, there is still no early screening test. “Many late-stage diagnosed patients may respond well initially to chemotherapy,” Sheryl says. “But they tend to deal with cancer recurrence until they run out of treatment options. That’s why I prefer to fund researchers who emphasize new ways to treat and perhaps cure advanced-stage and recurrent ovarian cancer…I was very impressed by the fact that Dr. Winer is a clinician as well as a researcher. He deals directly with patients and understands the urgency.”

“We are grateful to Sheryl and the Silver Family Foundation for Ovarian Cancer Research for helping us pursue promising ovarian cancer research,” Dr. Winer says. “It’s our honor to carry on Johanna’s legacy through Johanna’s Fund for Ovarian Cancer Research so that future generations of women will have access to the best treatment options available.”

Until an early screening test is developed, Sheryl encourages women — and the men who love them — to know the facts about early warning signs.

“This is one of those instances where ignorance is not bliss. It can be deadly. Even if you think the issue is just a minor gastric problem, insist on further tests. Err on the side of caution. Make sure ovarian cancer is not the cause,” says Sheryl. “The earlier ovarian cancer is detected, the better. Ovarian cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”

To support Johanna’s Fund for Ovarian Cancer Research at Karmanos, please contact Denise Lowe at 248-226-2163 or

Left to right: Sheryl Silver, Johanna Silver Gordon and Dr. Ira Winer