September 2011 Survivor of the Month – Dr. Melanie Helmken

melaniehelmkenOne patient, One friend, One woman at a time

Dr. Melanie Helmken’s

Story by Elizabeth H.R.Osterberger

September’s Survivor, Dr. Melanie Helmken, shows that breast cancer does not discriminate. As patients of any number of kinds of doctors, people sometimes forget that the doctors themselves are human too and are susceptible to the same kinds of ills that “regular” people are. The lady that nominated Dr. Helmken, a Savannah OB/GYN, said on her nomination form, “She actually sent out a letter to her patients apologizing for having to be out when she was having treatment. She’s amazing!”  An amazingly humble thing to do, it shows how even when affected by cancer a doctor still cares for her patients.

Melanie met with me to talk at her beautiful home where I was surrounded by three of her extremely friendly Labrador Retrievers. She greeted me with a warm smile and took me to the lovely back porch overlooking the river and marsh. We then started talking about her cancer story.

She recounted the details vividly, “My daughter and I were shopping in downtown Savannah for her sixteenth birthday. One of my favorite stores has little charms called Milagros. There are little charms for blessing  children and animals and houses, and believe it or not, breasts. Much to her dismay, I called to my daughter, “Look Emma, BOOBS!” I had to have them.  I am a gynecologist.  A little later I was trying on a dress in another store when a noticed a funny dimple in my right breast. I knew that nothing good could cause a dimple in a breast. I had breast cancer!  Well, it was my daughter’s sixteenth birthday. I will just have to worry about it another day.”

The joys of the birthday passed; that dimple was still there.  “As I was walking into my office that morning, one of the girls from Telfair Pavilion was walking by and asked how I was. “Well, I’m not sure,” I said. “Let’s go see.”  We went right in and I had a MMG and ultrasound. It was a deceptive little cancer that was not plain to see. I had biopsies by lunch and confirmation by the end of the day.  A lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy was done two days later. “One of those nasty little lymph nodes was positive! That meant additional surgery, an axillary node dissection.  It also meant chemotherapy,” she recalls.  With the help of her loving family, my dedicated partners, my understanding patients, my capable doctors, and lots of prayer my treatments were made tolerable.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure represents hope for me. It is amazing that inspiration from one woman’s disease has lead to an organization with global impact. Every dollar donated, every step taken, brings us closer in the race to win against breast cancer. Susan G. Komen for the Cure empowers every one of us to make a difference.”

As a doctor, Dr. Helmken is very aware of early detection and treatment, which she says has made major strides over the past twenty years. “Routine screening mammography has been essential in this progress. Currently, the best we can hope for is early detection and a small ounce of prevention. Screening recommendations are changing. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently changed their recommendations to include yearly screening mammograms from age forty. Self breast exam recommendations are now for “breast awareness”. This is a more encompassing recommendation that should include ones family history, personal history and physical characteristics. Look in the mirror. Know what your breasts feels like. No one knows your breasts better than you! You do not have to have a degree to practice breast awareness, ” she says.

Her goal is to educate women about breast health, to help them prevent breast cancer, to examine and perhaps diagnose them, and to encourage and support them through treatment. One patient, one friend, one woman at a time.

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