For decades, Paula Helmer’s lovely voice carried through the alto sections of several Ottawa choirs. But even after her death following a battle with breast cancer, Paula is still managing to be heard — maybe not through song, but through science.

“That’s what Paula was hoping for from all these clinical trials,” says Jeff Christie, Paula’s husband, “that it would move medical science forward.”

“That’s what Paula was hoping for from all these clinical trials, that it would move medical science forward.”

—Jeff Christie

Jeff and Paula met in university, both studying economics at the University of Waterloo, and both moving to Ottawa, Paula’s hometown, to work for the federal government in fulfilling careers that would span decades. All the while, Paula continued her passion for choral singing, with St. Timothy’s Presbyterian Church and the Ottawa Choral Society. But Jeff says it was family life that centred everything — children, grandchildren, travel, and the family cottage.

Paula (back row, fourth from right) in 2005 with members of the Ottawa Choral Society.

“Five years into retired life, it was discovered that Paula had cancer,” Jeff recalls.

It was a deadly form of breast cancer that had metastasized in her spine and was causing her considerable discomfort. Surgery removed the tumour but couldn’t eradicate the cancer, nor control the pain. That’s when Paula was introduced to Dr. Mark Clemons, a medical oncologist with The Ottawa Hospital.

“We came up with a multipronged plan to not only improve (Paula’s) pain,” Dr. Clemons explains, “but to get her disease back under control.”

“It was patently clear from the first meeting,” says Jeff, “that Dr. Clemons was very capable, competent, and wise. He gained our confidence the first time we met and the treatments he was suggesting for her, they were always so successful. How could you not love the guy?”

A passion to participate in clinical trials

Dr. Clemons is also the lead behind The Ottawa Hospital’s REaCT Program or Rethinking Clinical Trials, launched in 2014 with Dr. Dean Fergusson, senior scientist and Director of Clinical Epidemiology Program, and others. The aim of REaCT is to make enrollment in clinical trials easier, by involving cancer patients and their families every step of the way. Typically, only 3% of patients are involved in trials but with REaCT, that number is closer to 90% since the studies don’t involve extra visits or additional tests. Paula began participating in a series of clinical trials aimed at helping her, but also aimed at improving treatment options for future generations. Jeff says that was her driving ambition.

“Paula played an important role in advancing the treatment of patients across the world.”

— Dr. Mark Clemons

“It was really important to her, to both of us,” he says. “There are more treatments out there we haven’t found yet and we are going to find them through clinical trials. If you don’t participate, nobody gets the new treatments.”

Empowered and making an impact

More importantly, Jeff says, Paula’s participation in these clinical trials gave her a voice and made her an active participant in her treatment.

“Paula was always left with the impression that she was in the driver’s seat right beside Dr. Clemons. They listened to her, believed her.”

Dr. Clemons explains that one of the many clinical trials Paula participated in involved looking at how often bone agents should be given for patients with metastatic breast cancer. Traditionally, the treatment is delivered as an injection every four weeks, requiring patients to come to the hospital and spend prolonged periods away from home.

“Paula had a driving ambition to not only improve her own prognosis but also help with the knowledge being gained for future patients.”

— Dr. Mark Clemons

“Because of Paula and many other patients involved,” says Dr. Clemons, “we were able to do a trial that showed that an injection every 12 weeks was just as effective and was associated with fewer side effects.” It also added to Paula’s quality of life, allowing the couple to continue to visit the cottage and travel in between those 12-week injections.

“That was a great thing,” says Jeff. “The care we got was supportive of our lifestyle. It allowed us to travel as we had hoped to.”

Paula’s legacy lives on

Sadly, Paula lost her fight against cancer on February 18, 2021. But Jeff is continuing her work, spreading the word about REaCT among friends and colleagues, raising funds to support this critical work that is helping to shape better treatment options for cancer patients around the world.

“I’ve spoken about REaCT in my social circles,” Jeff explains. “I mentioned Paula has participated in at least dozens of clinical trials and benefited from them.”

“It’s fantastic that Jeff is continuing Paula’s legacy,” says Dr. Clemons. “Paula played an important role in advancing the treatment of patients across the world.”

It’s a role that she embraced with the same fervor she approached everything she did in life, whether as an economist, a wife, a mother, and yes, even a singer.

“There are more treatments out there we haven’t found yet and they are going to find them through clinical trials.”

— Jeff Christie

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health and research centre and teaching hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.