Helen for Hope -23 year OC survivior
September 18, 2003
Helen stands for hope
The straight story of ovarian cancer
from a 16-year survivor
By Helen Palmquist
From Health & Family
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. This year, instead of observing it with a story about symptoms and statistics, we celebrate it with a story of survival and hope. Helen Palmquist of Lincolnshire, a 16-year survivor of ovarian cancer, gives her personal account of diagnosis, treatment, recurrence and ultimate triumph over this terrible disease.
Ovarian cancer survivor Helen Palmquist with her Norman Rockwell illustration collection. (Charlotte Raymond / Bristol Myers Squibb)In May 1987 when I was 41, I suddenly noticed my abdomen was getting large. I phoned my brother, an obstetrician and gynecologist, long distance to tell him I looked four or five months pregnant. He told me that it sounded like I had an ovarian cyst, but I thought he was wrong, because I was feeling pressure higher on my diaphragm. I now believe he didn’t want to alarm me by saying that he thought it was ovarian cancer.
He told me to see my doctor and get an ultrasound the next day. The ultrasound showed one of my ovaries was the size of an orange. I was referred to a gynecologic-oncologist, whom I saw two days later. Four days after that, I had surgery. I was diagnosed with stage IIIc, grade 2, epithelial/serous, ovarian cancer.
Following surgery, I received eight treatments of Cisplatin, Adriamycin and Cytoxan, which were administered overnight in the hospital over a six-month period. In December 1987, I had exploratory, second-look surgery. Microscopic cancer was found, and I received five courses of high dose intraperitoneal Cisplatinum, again staying overnight in the hospital for each treatment. This was followed by six months of an oral chemotherapy drug, Hexamethymelamine. I finished taking this drug in December 1988.
In March 1993, nearly six years after my original surgery, I had a recurrence. I received 12 treatments of Carboplatin, given as an outpatient over a 12-month period, finishing in March 1994. During this time, I was also hospitalized twice for a partial bowel obstruction due to surgical scarring and once for a kidney infection. I have been in excellent health, with no recurrence, since completing chemotherapy in March 1994.
I never considered this a “battle” or a “fight.” I never said, “Why me?” I tried to live my life as normally as possible and enjoy every moment. My goal was to see my 9-year-old son finish high school. (He is now 25 years old.)
I was very nauseated from the chemotherapy and went from 120 to 85 pounds. It was hard to keep food down and a very frightening time. In addition to the nausea, I had no energy or appetite. I began to appreciate the little things: Feeling well enough to go to the grocery store, waking up in my own bed and looking out into my backyard.
I never cried a tear. I had my children to take care of and that kept me busy. Centering my life around them was a wonderful distraction. Our family took trips together, making sure that the trips didn’t interfere with my chemotherapy schedule. I also treated myself to presents. I counted down with each treatment. When I felt well enough, my cousin, a friend and I had “celebration” lunches after every treatment.
We are still celebrating, but now we celebrate after each doctor’s checkup. My husband was always there to reassure me. When I worried, he told me it was the chemotherapy that I was feeling and not the cancer. My mother always reassured me by saying, “Don’t cross bridges until you get to them,” and “Take it one day at a time.” When I would ask my brother, “How long will I live?” he would tell me I would live to be 95. He is a doctor, he should know.
I feel I owe my life to my gynecologic oncologist, Dr. John Lurain, department head, Northwestern University Medical School. He is my hero. He was the perfectionist in the operating room who removed 95 percent of the cancer. Dr. Lurain chose the chemotherapy drugs and their dosage that wiped out the five percent he was unable to remove in surgery. (My diaphragm was studded with cancer. He could only remove tumors that were larger than one quarter inch, or there would have been permanent damage.) He was the one who discovered a recurrence during a routine office exam. Dr. Lurain’s warm personality and cheerful disposition are an inspiration to his patients.
I’m thankful and grateful that I was able to help raise my children to be happy adults of whom I am proud. I’m thankful and grateful for a wonderful life. It’s very gratifying to be able to give support and reassurance to others going through treatment for cancer. I took my best friend to all of her chemotherapy treatments. It was a good time for us to visit and get her mind off why we were at the hospital.
I’m able to give my support to those dealing with ovarian cancer on the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition Web site, as well as the Ovarian Problems Discussion List. Whenever people write in with questions I can relate to, I respond with my positive experience and encouragement. I joined the Bloch Cancer Hot Line and the Dana Farber One-to-One support group. When someone who is going through treatment for ovarian cancer phones me, it’s very reassuring for them to know that I’m a 16-year survivor.
I’m also on the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and Northwestern Memorial Hospital Patient and Family Advisory Board. The board members are all survivors of different forms of cancer. I served on a committee that developed a “Buddy” mentor program. Survivors are paired with patients going through treatment who desire support, thereby reducing their anxiety. Once a week, I volunteered on the hospital floor where I was a patient and now I visit patients in the doctors’ offices when they come in for chemotherapy. I’m very pleased to help others who are going through what I experienced.
My experiences have led me to expand my horizons and to lead a fuller, more active life. I have traveled extensively, and I have more meaningful relationships with my family and friends. I also have a passion and devotion for my hobby, collecting old magazine cover illustrations and advertisements by Norman Rockwell. I’m curious to know everything about Rockwell the man, his models and his work. He often showed the happy side of life. You walk away from his pictures with a good feeling and a smile on your face. I share with the people in Rockwell’s world, a positive attitude and zest for life.
Find a gynecologic oncologist
Gynecologic oncologists are physicians who specialize in diagnosing and treating cancers that affect the female reproductive organs. If you are facing surgery for a suspicious ovarian mass that could be cancerous, you should find a gynecologic oncologist. Surgery for ovarian cancer can be tricky and requires special skill. The quality and thoroughness of your initial surgery can make a major difference in how you do over the long term.
There are many new chemotherapy drugs that have been developed since I was diagnosed in 1987. First line chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer is now Taxol/Carboplatin. Second look exploratory surgery is no longer common procedure. The chemotherapy side effects are now less severe and there are new drugs to combat the side effects. Women can now have better quality of life while undergoing treatment.
National Ovarian Cancer Coalition
The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition home page welcomes visitors with the question "Where do I begin?" and offers information on some of the issues most commonly faced by cancer patients.
Ovarian Cancer National Alliance
The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, formed as a coalition of local cancer help and awareness groups, seeks to pursue advocacy issues and raise awareness of ovarian cancer.
"Ovarian Cancer: Your Guide to Taking Control" by Kristine Conner & Lauren Langford
"Warnings, Sighs & Whispers: true stories that could save lives," edited by Maureen Ryberg and written by 57 women and their loved ones, is available by calling toll-free 888-280-7715, or online at http://www.1stbooks.com/.
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