For decades, millions of pregnant women were prescribed the FDA-approved drug diethylstibestrol, or DES, to prevent miscarriages and problem pregnancies.
But by the early 1970s, doctors were discovering some devastating side effects, particularly on the children of the women who took DES. Many of these DES Daughters experienced gynecological issues and even scarier — vaginal cancer.
Susan Helmrich was one of these victims. In 1977, at the age of 21, the elite college swimmer found out she had two malignant vaginal tumors. Just as her life was getting started, doctors told her it was likely ending.
She spent a month in the hospital and endured a grueling 10-hour surgery. But she eventually recovered, and it inspired her to live life to the fullest.
But years later, cancer struck again. This time, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, even though she had never smoked.
Even today, she says her cancer is a mystery. Doctors have never been able to link it definitively to DES but Susan says she suspects that it’s related.
And then, 13 years later, the unthinkable occurred — she was diagnosed with cancer for a third time. This time, a type of pancreatic tumor resulted in Susan losing her gall bladder, her duodenum, part of her pancreas and all of her reproductive organs.
Despite it all, Susan says the cancer has inspired her to not only stay active but to get into the best shape of her life. After a rocky start 20 months ago, she’s back in the water and better ever.
At the recent U.S. Masters Swimming Spring Nationals, she placed second in the 1650 m freestyle and third in the 500.
Susan says she still has her bad days but if there’s one thing she learned at the age of 21 it’s that every single day of her life is a gift. And she doesn’t intend to miss out on anything.
And she’s found a way to combine her two passions — swimming and finding a cure for cancer.
Susan explains how the organization Swim Across America is saving lives and why she’s working so hard to help doctors cure cancer once and for all.
Want to see Susan in action? Click here to watch our video feature on Susan, Beating Cancer One Lap at a Time.