Take Helen Pelikan. Your prototypical suburban housewife/mother/career woman (after the kids were in school) . . . well-educated, well-married, house in the suburbs, bright kids, community-minded, schools-minded . . .
You know the type. Successful. And, by and large, traditional.
But something happened to Helen Pelikan that jolted her off the comfortable life track she and her family had settled into.
She got cancer. And she doesn't seem to have it anymore.
She'd had abnormal PAP smears for 11 years, but nothing further had developed. Finally, in the summer of 1977, the results, as she puts it, "were more abnormal than usual." Further tests confirmed a diagnosis, she says, of cervical cancer and the report said ominously "invasion cannot be excluded." o
Cervical cancer alone, "in situ," as the doctors say, is among the more easily controlled malignancies. Once it invades below the surface or into other organs, of course, it is much more serious.
Pelikan's gynecologist sent her to a surgeon, Dr. Gregorio Delgado at Georgetown University, one of the area's most respected specialists in gynecological-oncological surgery -- surgery for cancer of the female reproductive or genital organs.
According to Pelikan, Delgado proposed a procedure called a Wertheim Hysterectomy, a radical operation which involves the vagina as well as the reproductive organs.
She recalls a discussion in the surgeon's office between her, her husband Bob, and OECD minister just stationed to Paris, and Dr. Delgado. The doctor's nurse, Pelikan recalls, referred her to a woman who had undergone the operation.
Dr. Delgado, however, now says the cancer was not invasive and was treated with apparent success by a cone biopsy, a therapeutic as well as diagnostic procedures. A Wertheim "was not indicated," he says.
In a way, Helen Pelikan's case represents a microcosm of the current challenge to traditional medicine. There are areas of disagreements, even controversy. It is a conflict of belief systems.
Until the question of the radical operation was raised, Helen Pelikan says she had obediently gone along with her traditional medical advisers. But, "Somehow I had the sense that my whole body was saying, 'Hey, wait a minute, you need some time to think this through . . .'"
She recalls that she wanted to "buy time," and "negotiate" with the surgeon for a waiting period of about a month, the outside time he felt she should wait. She needed, she said, to get used to the idea of the operation. She feared its effect on her sexuality. She wanted to prepare herself and her family. And she wanted her family's support in postponing the surgery and looking at non-traditional therapies.
"I don't know what I did," she says now, "but here's what I did." When her negotiated time period was up, her cancer was gone.
Says Dr. Delgado: "Well, it was treated (by the cone biopsy)." He also said that such cases need to be watched for 10 or even 15 years for any possibility of recurrence.
"All I know," says Pelikan on a half-hour videotape she made of her experience is "that I don't need the treatment of surgery or radiation or chemotherapy and that I'm here and whole and I don't honestly know why, except that I trusted myself and the judgment of people who could help me."
Basically what Helen Pelikan did, she says, was "assume responsibility for my body." She was impressed by a course in Chinese medicine that she took from Dr. Jing Wu at the Wellness Center in Georgetown.It seemed natural to approach him on whatever resources she could draw from his acupressure and acupuncture treatments.
She is, by training, a family therapist. So it also seemed natural to arrange sessions for herself, her husband and her daughter Kathleen, then in high school. (Another daughter, an actress, and a son were away from home.)
She heard of the work in Texas of Dr. Carl Simonton, a radiologist who had been having some success with helping patients fight cancer with meditation and mental imagery. She sent for the Simonton tapes, but found them not altogether satisfactory for her own purposes. However, she began the discipline of 10 minutes of meditation and imagery three times a day and one thing she heard, she says, "just blew my mind -- the statement (in the tapes) that 'cancer cells are weak and confused.'
"A light bulb went off. Well, I thought, sure, there's a part of me that's a little shaky, but there's enough of me that's real clear, and if they're weak and confused, man, we're just going to push them right on out. . ."
She also sought the help of a nutritionist and changed her diet; she prayed; she sought the strength of friends such as Jean Bonde, a nurse.
By the time the proposed surgery was imminent, Helen Pelikan's diagnostic slides were no longer showing cancerous cells.
Clinical pathologist Russell Jaffe, then a staff physical at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, agreed, at the request of a mutual acquaintance, to have NIH pathologists review Helen Pelikan's slides.
The changes were so marked during the four-to-six-week period that she "took charge of her body" that careful forensic studies were made to establish that the slides were from the same patient.
Dr. Jaffe, who now practices in Greenbelt, says he approached nontraditional medicine with a strong skepticism. "This can't be valuable," he used to say to himself, "or I'd know about it." He has found many claims not supported by evidence. But others, a minority to be sure, "are so valid they need further scrutiny" by the scientific community. He is particularly interested in the effect of the doctor-patient relationship on a given treatment.
Of Helen Pelikan, he says, "More and more we are recognizing the relasionship of life styles and health. She illustrates the coming together of these." In the videotape he says, "The authority that she assumed over her body, and the helping that she had from the team around her, may well have influenced the presence of the abnormal cells that we call cancer . . ."
Dr. Jaffe agrees that a cone biopsy can be therapeutic as well as diagnostic, "but," he said this week, "the startling thing about Helen's case was that the cone biopsy showed no evidence of cancer. If there was cancer, it should have shown some cancer cells and it didn't."
Helen Pelikan's videotape, made with the assistance of NIH, and the help and participation of her "support team," has been shown to a number of professionals and others interested in "wellness" medicine.
Pelikan, who is about to move to Paris with her international economist husband, has formed with nurse Bonde an organization called "Health Options International," (11713 Devilwood Dr. Potomac, Md. 20854) to help counsel patients and their families confronting potentially catastrophic medical problems. The pair are an area resource of Dr. Gerald Jampolsky's California-based counseling service for children and adolescents with such problems.
This weekend they are conducting an invitational workshop on "The Whole Woman's Health and Beauty" (beauty being of the internal sort) at the Bethesda Woman's Club. This is all to further their modest mission: "To revolutionize the Western medical system."
"I tried to write a book," says Pelikan, "but I'm not a book person. We did the film because I think there's something here that I learned and something that other people can learn, too."