At 26, Julie Gillespie was living the life she'd always planned.

She had finished college, fallen in love and landed a job as a hospital social worker.

When subtle signs of illness first appeared, Julie and her husband hoped that she was pregnant. But a series of doctor visits in 2000 revealed a diagnosis far from what the couple had imagined: Julie had ovarian cancer.
Compounding the devastating news was that her cancer was at Stage 4, the most advanced and dangerous stage. For 5 1/2 years, Julie survived the disease, undergoing a hysterectomy and months of chemotherapy.

Her older sister, Chris Gillespie, drew inspiration from Julie's enduring strength.

"Usually it's the older sister who teaches the younger sister," Chris said. "But I think I learned more about courage, grace and dignity from her than I could ever have imparted on her."

At 31, Julie died.

Now, Chris volunteers as president of the nonprofit Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Ohio (OCAO). She has made it her mission to raise awareness of the rare cancer that blindsided her family, and to educate women about the warning signs and symptoms of the disease. A spotlight shines on those efforts in September, which is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

Ovarian cancer has been dubbed the "silent killer" because it can be difficult to detect. Symptoms include bloating; pelvic or abdominal pain; difficulty eating or feeling full; and urinary problems.

More than 21,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and about 15,000 women die of the disease every year in the U.S., according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. Survival rates also are lower than other cancers that affect women.

Roughly 75 percent of women are diagnosed after the cancer has already spread, said Dr. David Cohn, a gynecologic oncologist at Ohio State University's Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital.

Although most cases occur in post-menopausal women, young women are affected, too.

"It's the eighth most common cancer in women," Cohn said. "There's a lot of research that's ongoing to find ways to detect the disease in early stages."

Chris Gillespie urges women to look for the disease's subtle symptoms. Julie had experienced them, but doctors didn't uncover the cause until it was too late.

"A lot of women, they don't advocate for themselves," Chris said. "When it comes to our own health, a lot of women are really busy and say, 'Well, I'll put it off 'til tomorrow.' "