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Sharing One Story To Save Many Lives

There is no question that Paula Hollinger has to believe.

She believes talking to other women about genetic testing for the gene for ovarian cancer can help save lives.

She believes that she is making life better for other women by participating in clinical trials that will advance treatment.

She believes her doctors and medical team have the compassion and ability to heal her body after a reoccurrence of ovarian cancer and soon she will start a new phase of life.

“Since this all started, the word ‘believe’ is more important to me than ever before,” says Hollinger, wearing a shirt adorned with the ovarian cancer ribbon and her favorite word in shiny teal rhinestones. “I believe what we’re doing is going to work.”

A genetic link

Paula knew she had a family history of breast cancer, and always thought she would get genetic testing someday. However, in the fall of 2011, she found out at age 35 she had ovarian cancer.

Genetic testing after her diagnosis confirmed what Paula had always suspected: She carried the BRCA1 genetic mutation. But what was a surprise was that she would face ovarian cancer.

“The whole thing was really surreal,” says Paula, sitting next to her husband Joe in their Sioux City, Iowa, home. “I expected breast cancer. I never thought about ovarian cancer.”

The news came as a shock to the mom of two teenage boys, but she quickly jumped into treatment, surgery followed by chemotherapy. Paula opted to be part of a clinical trial, testing new drug therapies for ovarian cancer.

Her physician, gynecologic oncologist Dr. Maria Bell, says women like Paula who participate in clinical trials are involved in some of the most innovative treatments, and help to improve cancer therapies for the patients who follow.

“That’s how we advance the science,” says Dr. Bell. “The willingness of women like Paula to participate in clinical trials make it possible for us to improve treatments for everyone.”

While Paula was in treatment for her ovarian cancer, life went on. Paula’s boyfriend asked her to marry him during a poker run event that raised funds for her treatment. They were married in a backyard ceremony with family and friends. Her father was diagnosed with head/neck cancer and successfully beat the disease.

Sharing her story

Paula had her first opportunity to make a presentation to other women in her community, telling them about genetic testing and her journey with ovarian cancer. As a person who always worked in sales, she found it to be the best “sales talk” she’s ever delivered.

“It made me so happy to be able to help out,” says Paula. “I tell everyone that if there is something they can do to be proactive about their cancer, they should do it.”

In April 2013, Paula got the word her treatment was done. There were no signs of cancer in her body. She had a preventive mastectomy in February, removing all of her breast tissue to prevent the possibility of facing breast cancer in the future.

Paula says she had no hesitation about undergoing the surgery. She has spoken to other women, encouraging them to consider genetic testing.

Her doctor agrees the knowledge gained through genetic testing helps women make informed decisions about their cancer risks. Some women will undergo a more targeted program of specific screenings for cancer, while others may opt for preventative surgery.

“It empowers the patient to take care of her health,” says Dr. Bell. “If we know what to look for, we can decrease the chance of developing cancer in the future.”

Two months after her mastectomy, Paula went back to have a scan for a second clinical trial. She was planning to participate in a trial that tracks healthy eating and exercise for women following breast cancer treatment. Instead, Paula was floored to find out her ovarian cancer had returned. At first she was angry. But then she remembered the word that got her through the treatment the first time -- “believe.”

Her new life

Paula points to the painting on her wall made by an artist who worked with breast cancer patients at Sanford. Outstretched hands reach to the sky, illustrating a woman’s ability to believe. Next to the painting, she displays a shelf with tiny little “bottles of hope,” beautiful pieces of art made out of empty glass chemotherapy bottles.

“I don’t take my life for granted and I don’t give up,” says Paula. “I believe every day is important.”

She’s has chemotherapy treatments, but she feels good, and sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Her Sanford medical team is supportive and professional, and once again she’s participating in a new clinical trial, to give herself the most advanced treatment and help improve treatment for others.

“I feel so lucky to have my doctor and the entire team working for my cancer,” says Paula. “Sanford is amazing. I don’t feel like I’m in this alone, because I’m not.

Posted Date: October 2013