It was 1987. Helen Palmquist knew something was wrong. Her abdomen was enlarged to make her look five months pregnant. After phoning her brother, an obstetrician and gynecologist, and listening to his insistence for her to see a gynecologist, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 41.
More than 30 years later, Helen, now 72, celebrates Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, the official awareness month for gynecologic cancers created by the Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC). Helen reflects on how her diagnosis changed her life and instilled an enduring sense of hope for other women diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
As a survivor, Helen witnessed the changes in the field of gynecologic oncology and the improved awareness for gynecologic cancers.
“Ovarian cancer” was not something talked about at the time, she said. Luckily, Helen was referred to a gynecologic oncologist, John Lurain, MD at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center. Helen credits her gynecologic oncologist and his treatment for saving her life and helping fulfill her wish of watching her children grow up.
Helen went through a recurrence in 1993, six years after her initial diagnosis, but luckily, she has been in good health since then.
Not only did Helen witness her children growing up, but she also devoted her life to giving hope to other women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Throughout the process, Helen said she stayed positive, hopeful and strong. Her tenacity helped her through.
“My ovarian cancer diagnosis gave me a real purpose in my life,” she said. Several years after her treatment Helen met other survivors who have become lifelong friends. She worked with other ovarian cancer organizations such as the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance. She is a supporter of the FWC over the years by passing out brochures and attending survivors courses.
For Helen, she always recommends a woman with symptoms go to a gynecologist and if ovarian cancer is suspected, the gynecologist should refer the patient to a gynecologic oncologist. She also encourages others to get BRCA testing. Helen has the BRCA-2 gene, a gene on chromosome 13 that normally helps to suppress cell growth. A person who inherits certain mutations (changes) in a BRCA2 gene has a higher risk of getting breast, ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.
“Everyone with ovarian cancer should get genetic testing. If they test positive, they should encourage their family members [to get tested],” she said. “Knowledge is power.”