Childhood Cancer Survivor National Contest Winner

Childhood Cancer Survivor National Contest Winner
Helen Paulini Will be Mentored by Cancer Researcher

Helen PauliniA diagnosis of cancer would be enough to stop anyone in their tracks. But a diagnosis of cancer at age one-and-a-half? And, yet another diagnosis at age five?

What would normally be a frightening experience for anyone is something that has motivated Fox Chapel Area High School sophomore Helen Paulini. A childhood cancer survivor, Helen was recently named a national winner in the newly established Emperor Science Award program. She will have the opportunity this summer to work alongside and be mentored by John Maris, M.D., a pediatric oncologist and co-head of the Pediatric Cancer Dream Team at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The research Helen will be a part of will focus on pediatric cancers, specifically the genes that cause neuroblastoma in children. She hopes that her part in the research may help other children who face a diagnosis similar to her own.

Helen’s Cancer Journey

When Helen was still a baby, simple arm pain led to the revelation that she had synovial sarcoma, a cancer that affects the soft tissue, usually around joints. Shortly after her diagnosis, she had surgery to remove the tumor. But, when she was five-years-old, the unthinkable happened. During a regular follow-up appointment, the doctors discovered that the cancer had returned.

Synovial sarcomas are not often seen in young children, so her family was referred to a pediatric synovial sarcoma doctor in Boston. Her Pittsburgh doctors and the Boston doctors worked together to develop a treatment plan, and the family regularly traveled there, even staying there for extended periods of time, so that Helen could receive her treatments. She had a series of surgeries with radiation both before and after her operations. The extensive surgeries involved removing muscle and tendons from her lower arm and replacing them with a large muscle from her thigh. A hand surgeon then needed to repair her hand so that she would have normal movement. To this day, Helen continues to have regular follow-up appointments and scans. Last summer, Helen was thrilled to hit her 10-year milestone of being cancer free!

“I am grateful to the doctors and scientists responsible for the treatment of my childhood cancer who made and continue to make great contributions to the health of myself and many others,” Helen said. “The opportunity to learn more and work with researchers doing these studies is especially meaningful to me.”

The Emperor Science Award

Helen is one of only 100 winners nationwide of The Emperor Science Award that is open to high school students. According to Helen, “Seeing how difficult cancer is to treat got me interested in applying for the Emperor Science Award program, because it seemed like a great way to learn about cancer research, and give back and make a difference in helping others.” The essay she wrote for the contest focused on the importance of medical research and her interest in the work of childhood cancer researchers. She also wrote about how her own experience with cancer made her want to learn more about the work of medical researchers, especially since their efforts have led to so many successful treatments.

Yes, a cancer diagnosis is incredibly frightening. But with her positive nature, Helen has turned the experience around with her grateful attitude. “I especially appreciate all the people who work every day to contribute to the world. During my regular follow-up appointments at the hospital over the past 10 years, I’ve met lots of kids and teenagers who are really inspiring, as well as the doctors and nurses.”

Helen knows she wants to attend college, but is not quite certain of her direct career path. She knows, “Whatever it is, I want to keep learning and help others in some way. I love art, filmmaking, math, and science so I want to keep exploring all of these areas.”

According to Helen she is thrilled to have this rare opportunity to be a part of something so special. “I am really excited to see what it’s all about and meet Dr. Maris and some of the people he works with. I’m so excited I received this award and get the chance to discover more!”

The Emperor Science Award program was made possible by founding donors Genentech, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Novartis and is an initiative designed to encourage high school students to explore careers in science, specifically cancer research and care, through a unique mentoring opportunity. The Emperor Science Award partners are Stand Up To Cancer and PBS LearningMedia.

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