Terry Fox medal winner conquers adversity

September 22, 2005, vol. 34, no. 2
By Roberta Staley

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Sometimes all you can do is throw your arms wide and shout to the sky, “Why me?”

Cherri Helgason couldn't muster the energy to do even that. The 37-year-old wanted only to hide away forever under the bedcovers.

But she had a beautiful little toddler named Lauren to care for. Lauren's 40-year-old father Frank Helgason had died suddenly of an aneurysm. Her unemployed, now-widowed mother lived in constant pain from psoriatic arthritis, a debilitating disease that causes overwhelming exhaustion and crippling joint disintegration. “I couldn't get out of a chair, I couldn't slice bread or open a door,” says Vancouver-born Helgason, now 46.

“At the time, I was terrified,” says Helgason, the 2005 winner of the Terry Fox gold medal awarded annually to a student who demonstrates courage in adversity and dedication to society as exemplified by Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope for cancer research. Winners are given $1,000 and three semesters free tuition. “I couldn't work because of the arthritis,” says Helgason, who before the disease hit in 1996 would shinny up telephone poles for B.C.Tel. “I knew I had to have a plan, as I had a child. But all I really wanted to do was go to bed and pull the covers over my head.”

Helgason came up with a plan: attend post-secondary classes at Kwantlen college while surviving off a widow's pension. After two years, she transferred to the University College of the Fraser Valley and finished a double major in history and sociology, garnering a 3.85 GPA and numerous academic awards.

But Helgason's arthritis was still severe. One day, like Damocles' Sword, the raft of dubiously effective arthritis medications caused her stomach to start hemorrhaging. She was hospitalized. Helgason's rheumatologist suggested a new medication, Remicade, an intravenous injection of mouse and human protein that was still in drug trials.
The cutting-edge treatment, says Helgason, “saved my life.”

With her pain under control, Helgason could contemplate a masters degree and was accepted into SFU's history department in 2004. Her thesis is based upon life experience. When she was employed at B.C. Tel, fresh out of Burnaby North secondary school, only clerical jobs or work as a telephone operator were open to her. “That experience of being streamed right off the bat into typically female jobs is what I'm writing my thesis on.”

In addition to school work, Helgason also volunteers at the B.C. Arthritis Society, speaking to newly diagnosed arthritis sufferers about the challenges of coping with the disease.

A keen environmentalist, Helgason is a founding member of the Knouff Lakes preservation society, located in the Kamloops area, which works to repatriate rainbow trout fry into the lake system.

Helgason no longer feels like hiding from what fate has dealt her. “We don't always have a choice about what gets thrown at us in life, but we sure have a choice about how we are going to deal with it."

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