Jan Paul

Now in its ninth year, the St. Luke’s Hospital Healthy Woman Award honors local women who not only embody a healthy lifestyle, but also inspire others in the community to follow their lead. This year’s four honorees, who were feted at the recent St. Luke’s Hospital Spirit Girls’ Night Out, include: Mary Pat Henehan of Olivette, Jan Paul of Webster Groves, Susan Richmond of Eureka, and Jennifer Riegel of O’Fallon, Missouri.

LN recently spoke with Jan Paul about the experiences that led her to becoming an honoree. At the age of 43, Paul survived a heart attack. She had no risk factors, but later learned that she had a protein deficiency that made her more susceptible to clotting. After that experience, she doubled her efforts to lead a healthy lifestyle, becoming a runner and even entering several 5K races.

In 2005, Paul retired from her job as an editor and investigative reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to start a landscaping business that she now runs with her husband. However, shortly after leaving her job, she was diagnosed with stage 3-B ovarian cancer. After a complete hysterectomy and chemotherapy, she recovered and has been cancer-free for eight years.

Using her journalism skills, Paul joined the board of St. Louis Ovarian Cancer Awareness (SLOCA), where she served as VP of messaging. In that role, she spearheaded new branding efforts for the nonprofit, as well as a redesign of SLOCA’s website and improved communications for awareness and volunteer efforts.

Did you have any warning signs before your heart attack?

When my cancer was discovered, they finally traced the root of the problem: I have Protein S deficiency, which is a tendency to clot easily. That caused the heart attack, and it also caused me to have deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is a large clot in your leg that can be fatal if it breaks off and goes to the lungs. That didn’t happen in my case, but it alerted me to get the help I needed to diagnose the ovarian cancer.

About 10 years after the heart attack, I had a sharp pain in my foot, and my doctor ordered an ultrasound, but it showed nothing. As it turned out, a clot was forming, but not yet visible on the ultrasound. I was just about to leave for a long road trip to the East Coast, and going on a road trip is probably the worst thing you can do with DVT.

As I was walking through my favorite garden in the world, in Delaware, my leg swelled up to twice its normal size. I ended up in a really great urban teaching hospital, and they told me I should see a hematologist when I got home. Even though my doctor was not suspicious of anything, I went to a hematologist and he ordered all the right tests, and within two days I was diagnosed.

Were you in the early stages of the disease when your cancer was diagnosed, and what was treatment like?

Ovarian cancer is rated in stages 1 through 4, and those are subdivided into A, B and C. I was 3-B, so I was a couple stages away from the worst. The treatment always involves a complete hysterectomy. I was fortunate in that there was a fairly new protocol for chemotherapy that was the gold standard, and was just approved earlier that year. Normally, the chemo is delivered through an IV in a vein near your clavicle, but this new protocol added to that. I had an IV, but also an intraperiton (IP) needle, which was another port that was inserted into my abdomen. I got 2 liters of chemotherapy pumped into my abdomen—so, if you imagine a 2-liter soda bottle, that’s what it was like. I would walk out waddling! It was about five months of treatment, and they cautioned you it was a rigorous treatment, and about 60 percent (of patients) would get too sick to finish it at the end. I was excited when I was able to finish.

Have you been cancer-free since?

I’m one of the really blessed people who has not had a recurrence. It’s been eight years, and although I had a 70 to 90 percent chance of a recurrence, those are typically in the first two years.

And you were able to return to your new landscaping career?

Yes, but really, raising awareness of ovarian cancer became my passion. I felt like I was so fortunate that I wanted to get the word out to save someone else from a late diagnosis. Within two years, everyone else who had taken chemotherapy at the same time I did was dead. The sad thing about getting involved in a charity like this is you do lose a lot of friends, but I’ve met some amazing and very strong women, so I’m thankful for that.

What warning signs should women be aware of for ovarian cancer?

There are four main signs—not every woman would have all four, but almost every woman will have one. Bloating is the most common; as well as abdominal or pelvic pain; difficulty eating or feeling full quickly; and urinary frequency or urgency.

What we’ve seen from all the stories from women who are diagnosed is that many had symptoms they were overlooking because they were too busy with their careers, or taking care of parents or children or spouses. As women, we tend to put ourselves last. We ignore or explain away symptoms, thinking they are benign and will rectify themselves. We recommend that women keep a diary, and write down if they start seeing a change in their bodies, and how often they detect those symptoms. If you detect these symptoms every day or every other day for two to three weeks, you should see a doctor.