Many hikers who set out on the 211-mile John Muir Trail in California are driven by the beauty of the wilderness it passes through—iconic spots like Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. 

For John “Woody” Orofino, while the pull of the wild is strong, it's the death of his mother from ovarian cancer in May that has motivated him to leave the comfort of San Francisco for some of the finest mountain scenery in the United States.

“I’m doing this in the name of my mother,” says Orofino, of Mill Valley, Calif. “I’m doing it in the name of raising money and raising awareness about ovarian cancer.”

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Hiker Honors Mother with Each Step

Orofino will leave on July 30 for the start of the trail in Yosemite Valley. From there, he will hike for 22 days straight, averaging more than 10 miles a day, with large elevation changes and several nights spent at over 10,000 feet.

While Orofino comes from an athletic family, playing sports like baseball, soccer, and golf, backpacking is a more recent passion for him. It's something he shares with his mother, who took up hiking later in life.

“I personally came to really love backpacking, and really love being in the outdoors, just over the past four to five years," he says. "I’ve always loved nature, but prior to this, my longest time ... in the wilderness was about three days.”

Tackling a grueling hike like the John Muir Trail is no small endeavor, but Orofino has been preparing diligently. He's motivated by the fact that every step he takes will honor his mother’s memory.

“This is definitely a very large undertaking,” he says, “but it’s one that I’m confident I can accomplish, and I’m definitely very passionate about the cause.”

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Funds Will Support UCSF Ovarian Cancer Program

Even before Orofino’s campaign—named Walking for Karen, after his mother—kicked into full gear he was already bringing attention to ovarian cancer, a disease that kills thousands of women each year, but still lacks a good test for early screening. Orofino’s goal is to raise $50,000 for the medical center at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where his mother received her treatments.

“A hundred percent of the proceeds and contributions that I generate are going to the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center,” he says, “specifically for ovarian cancer research.”

UCSF, which has both ovarian cancer treatment and research programs, is proud of Orofino and his efforts.

“To be able to see him channel his energy into doing something that’s going to really help improve awareness for ovarian cancer was so impressive,” says Dr. Lee-may Chen, a gynecologic cancer surgeon at UCSF Medical Center. “We’re touched that he wants to help make a contribution to us because I think we have a lot of work to do, and we need support to be able to do that type of work.”

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Early Detection Is Key with Ovarian Cancer

The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2014, nearly 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 14,270 will die from the disease.

The chances of survival after diagnosis depend on how early doctors detect the tumor. Orofino’s mother was diagnosed with a more advanced stage III cancer. Before she passed away, she underwent 19 months of treatment, including six rounds of chemotherapy.

Because there is no good screening test for ovarian cancer, only about 15 percent of women are diagnosed before the cancer has spread beyond the ovaries, making treatment more difficult.

“There’s no recognized effective screening for ovarian cancer,” says Chen. “There’s been research looking for a marker or a blood test or a target, and they simply have not found one yet.”

Orofino hopes that his fundraising efforts will help UCSF develop early detection tests to improve the chances of survival for thousands of women, or, as he describes them, “sisters, mothers, daughters, role models.”

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Stay Alert for Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

In the meantime, Orofino continues to spread the word about the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Noticing symptoms and talking with your doctor is currently the best bet for early detection.

Signs of ovarian cancer include abdominal bloating, pelvic pressure, feeling full early after eating, and changes in urinary or bowel habits. These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, which makes diagnosis difficult.

“While these symptoms are vague,” says Chen, “they’ve been shown in several studies that if they persist and they’re severe, there’s a higher chance of women being found with something that turns out to be more serious.”

All women should take these symptoms seriously if they occur daily for several weeks. But women who have a family history of ovarian cancer should be especially cautious, as should women who carry a hereditary genetic mutation for cancer, including harmful version of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. BRCA genetic testing is recommended for women with a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancers, especially women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.

After the stress of caring for his mother for more than a year, Orofino is looking forward to hitting the trail and focusing on simpler things—putting one foot in front of the other, reaching his distance goals each day, and staying in the present, wherever he is.

While his family and friends will join him for parts of the trip, he will also have plenty of time to reflect in solitude. But even then, he won’t be completely alone in the wilderness.

“Just a few days before she passed away, [my mother] said she’s going to be there every step of the way with me, and we’ll be talking to each other on the trail,” he says. “So she’ll be there with me, and it’s a big motivation for me to complete it, because it’s for her.”

You can donate to Walking for Karen on the UCSF crowdfunding website.

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