Ovarian cancer is a stealthy disease. Just ask Helen Pashales. She found herself short on symptoms when ovarian cancer first struck. Now, she’s fighting back with the help of a clinical trial.
“I just felt something different about me. Lots of times, with ovarian cancer, you don’t feel pain. There are no early warning signs. I just had a feeling there was something different about me, and I decided to go to my gynecologist,” said the 55-year-old Realtor.
That visit to her gynecologist led to an abdominal ultrasound and a blood test, which in turn led to an immediate appointment with gynecologic oncologist James Burke and, in short order, major surgery. The diagnosis was not good: stage 3 ovarian cancer. But the news was not all bad -- Pashales was eligible to enter clinical trials.
Clinical trials are a big element in the fight against ovarian cancer because the disease is so challenging. Its silent-symptom progression usually means the cancer is diagnosed at an advanced stage, past the point where surgery alone offers effective treatment. That means the development of more effective chemotherapy and other treatment avenues is particularly important. Without clinical trials more effective chemotherapy weapons for ovarian cancer will never reach the women who need them.
Pashales was diagnosed in August 2011 and has been on chemotherapy continuously since then, sometimes in heavy rotation, sometimes at wide intervals. Early on, when she was receiving the most aggressive doses, she recalls the side effects as daunting.
“Your mouth starts tasting everything as metal. I had to eat with plastic knives and forks, even in restaurants,” she said. “I couldn’t taste anything -- but I could taste fruit, so I had a house full of fruit. If I ate something piping hot, I could taste it a little bit, so that was another thing. I couldn’t drink cold water because it tasted awful.”
She found the chemotherapy-induced loss of her hair to be particularly challenging emotionally, but she focused on the reasons.
“I didn’t care losing it as long as I could save my life. I didn’t care if it never grew back, even,” she said. She coped by buying what she describes as “every baseball cap known to mankind, in every color.” (Her hair, by the way, did grow back.)
Friendship helped her cope, too. Sia and James Chokos at Custom Stitch surprised her with a bright red shirt that she wears every time she goes to Memorial University Medical Center for her chemo treatments. Custom-embroidered on the front are the words “Lab Rat 006” (drawing on the last three digits of her clinical trial ID number) and, below that, a realistic rendering of a silver and black rat.
Pashales loves the shirt, although when she looks at it, she says she thinks, “Just one number different and I could have been 007.”