On medical leave fighting ovarian cancer, Albany Options Principal Candy Baker encourages other women to pay attention to their bodies and see their doctor regularly

This fall, for the first time in 51 years, Candy Baker won’t be in a classroom for the first day of school.

But the Albany Options School principal is still a teacher to her core. She’s using her unexpected time off — a backhanded gift from the effects of ovarian cancer — to educate women about the diagnosis that changed her life.

“They call it the silent killer,” said Baker, who was diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer on Christmas Eve 2010 and had surgery a week later. “The most important thing that I can encourage other women to do is to continue to have their yearly exams. That’s the most common way it’s discovered.”

Baker, 57, never wanted to do anything but teach. From age 4 on, she would ask her brothers or any children who came to the house to play school.

Her first degree, after graduating from Scio High School, was a bachelor’s in business from Oregon State University. But it wasn’t long before she was receiving her master’s in education from OSU and administrative credentials from Portland State University.

She began student teaching at West Albany in 1974 as a college sophomore and stayed her junior and senior year. In 1979, she came full-time to West and became assistant principal 25 years later. In January 2006, Baker was chosen as Oregon’s Assistant Principal of the Year, and was one of three finalists for National Assistant Principal of the Year.

She joined Albany Options School in the fall of 2006 and has made it her mission to help the students there achieve all they can in their alternative setting.

“Candy is truly a gifted leader with endless energy that she devotes to students, staff, parents, and the community,” said West Albany Principal Susie Orsborn. “I feel truly blessed to have been able to work with her for over 25 years.”

Symptoms of ovarian cancer mimic a host of other problems. They include abdominal pressure and swelling. Pelvic discomfort. Persistent indigestion or nausea. Fatigue. Low back pain. Changes in bowel and bladder habits. Loss of appetite or quickly feeling full.

Being an administrator often involves late hours and little time for exercise or perfect eating habits. When school began last September, Baker chalked up her stomach discomfort and lack of energy to overwork.

“I thought, ‘I’m getting older,’” she said wryly. “It didn’t seem like extreme or out of the ordinary.”

Still, she mentioned the digestive trouble and the occasional pinch in her right side when she saw her regular physician in October. Tests for irritable bowel syndrome or similar issues came back negative.

Baker had always been active, within her weight range, and rarely sick. Her family has no history of cancer. She stopped thinking about the vague discomfort.

But in December, during her annual exam, Baker’s gynecologist found changes in her ovaries. Further testing brought the diagnosis: a 7-centimeter tumor on the right ovary, a 4-centimeter tumor on the left. Both had grown in the year since Baker’s last exam.

She remembers the phone call from the physician’s office that Christmas Eve: “I’m making arrangements for you to see a gynecological oncologist.” And she remembers her bewildered response: “Are you saying you think I have cancer?”

The problem with ovarian cancer is that it grows on the outside of the ovary, where it’s almost impossible to detect until it metastasizes, Baker learned. The spreading cells then float around, coating other internal organs like melted sugar poured on a cake.

Surgeons can open the patient up and remove the cells as best they can, just as a cook can try to scrape off the sugar, Baker said — and that’s what they did. Then they use chemotherapy to try to kill any that may remain, which they also did.

But just like the sugar, there’s no way to be sure they’ve removed every grain. Until, and unless, that is, it begins to grow again.

And Baker is aware that it almost always does.

“I have strong faith and spiritual beliefs. I just know God’s intervening all the way,” she said. “That gets me through every day and helps me to enjoy every day.”

She suffers from “chemo brain,” a quirky name for the very real memory and cognitive troubles produced by the treatment. She battles neuropathy, particularly in her legs, which makes it tough to stand for long periods.

But the tests for telltale protein markers are good so far, and Baker is slowly regaining energy after her last round of chemotherapy in May. She can ride her motorcycle, travel with her husband, Rick, and garden at the Crabtree-area home where she’s spent all but nine years of her life.

She hasn’t left the employ of Greater Albany Public Schools, although former South Albany assistant principal Michael Ingman now holds her principal position at AOS. She’d love to return, but said it’s up to her doctor.

In the meantime, she continues to teach. Her curriculum is her new arsenal of information about the health care world.

Pay attention to your body, she urged. Note any changes. Tell your doctor, who may be able to put the pieces together faster than you can. Early detection is still a survivor’s best hope.

Most of all, she said, don’t stop visiting a gynecologist, even post-menopause. That’s when ovarian cancer risk really spikes.

And if you should find yourself on the phone with your doctor, struggling to comprehend the same diagnosis Baker received, she stands ready to expand her lesson plan, talking with you about what to expect and how it might feel.

In the meantime, don’t sweat the small stuff and realize that most of it is, Baker said. Yes, the outlook for late stage ovarian cancer is not good. But any day, for any reason, could be a person’s last.

“Everyone needs to, in my opinion, stop and think about that. Today might be your last day,” she said. “Did you do, really, what you wanted to do?”

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