Sallie Helms, Ph.D.


Sallie Griffis Helms, Ph.D.

Sallie Griffis Helms makes the world brighter, those who know her say. She cares more for others than herself, they say. She’s taken on pancreatic cancer, and been more than just an aunt to her nieces and their widowed mother. After her cancer returned, she completed her Ph.D. And she’s still a work in progress.

“We are all people in progress,” said Helms. “Life is a process.”

For all she’s accomplished and for what she will still achieve, Helms is the recipient of the 2012 Evolving Eve Award. She was presented the award May 23 at the Sixth Annual Nominate HER Awards Luncheon, sponsored by Houston Woman Magazine.

“She is someone who has accomplished much, has pursued her dreams and, all the while, never for one minute forgetting what is really important in life – family, friends and those less     fortunate,” said Susan Cooley, in her nomination letter. “Sallie has been blessed with much and has given much in return.”

“Her cheerful heart and outgoing disposition are a powerful magnet, and her kindness is an inspiration,” Shan Rankin said.

Helms calls herself blessed. That was partially why, when her brother Bill was killed in Vietnam 42 years ago, leaving behind two children, she tried to fill his place in their lives. When her parents died 10 years later, she also tried to fill their place for their grandchildren. 

“I was so fortunate to grow up with brothers who I adored so much and who adored me,” she said. “Bill gave so much. And I knew what kind of a father he would have been based on what kind of a brother he was.”

She made a conscious effort to spend time with the two girls. And, inspired by a nudge from the spirit of that brother or her parents, she’d spontaneously do something special for the girls – buy them a gift, for example.

After her brother’s death, she saw the profound impact a therapist had on his family. It’s an effect she would observe many times in her life — how therapy helped when a nephew was diagnosed with leukemia, how it helped her deal years later with her brother’s death. 

Twenty years after getting a sociology degree from The University of Texas at Austin, and after getting married and having two sons, Travis and Mac, she earned her master’s degree in family therapy from the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

She earned her license and practice in Atlanta before moving to Houston in 2004 and began work on her Ph.D. in counselor education at Sam Houston University.In 2009, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had to take a break from her doctorial work. 

“When the pathology doctor told me the results came back positive, I was just thinking in my mind like a rolodex of all the people I know who have had cancer, and they’re leading productive and healthy lives. And the pathologist said, ‘And you will too.’” 

Doctors removed an obstruction in her bowl duct, part of the pancreas and stomach, the gall bladder, part of the intestines. She had chemotherapy treatments until July 2010, when the cancer appeared to have gone away.Last fall, the cancer returned.She’d gone into her first bout believing if she just did what she was supposed to do, everything would be fine. And, everything had gone so well. So, it came as a shock when the cancer returned, she said.

After surgery, she started chemotherapy again — losing her hair and eyelashes, something that hadn’t happened the first time. But, after four weeks, a CT scan revealed the treatment wasn’t having an effect. So, she joined a clinical trial for a new oral regiment, taking a tablet twice a day and a powder once a day. Together, the medicines target the message pathways that tell the cancer cells to grow and not die.

It’s still early in the treatment, and she doesn’t think about the prognosis. She’s strong in her faith, and she believes God will take care of her always.
“For now, I’m in a period of in-between,” Helms said.

“I have on the one hand the hope of a complete cure, and on the other hand, the awareness I could be planning a funeral. It’s an unusual space. It’s very spiritual. And, I mean it in such a good way. I just see things in a way that is a real gift to me. There are so many blessings right now,” she added.

Her friends say she has been upbeat, inspiring and thinking of others during all of her treatments.

“I am one of her many prayer warriors, although I often find myself wondering just who is praying for whom,” said Carole Mather. “Sallie epitomizes the ‘Proverbs 31’ woman. She lights up any room when she walks in; she encourages people; she would rather ask for prayers for others than for herself.”

“When I received the e-mail about her illness, it broke my heart,” Rankin said. “The journey since has also inspired it.”

Helms is still counseling one couple at church. She’s been asked to join the faculty at the Houston-Galveston Institute to lead some workshops. After beating the cancer, she imagines she’ll do some adjunct teaching and maybe some writing.

She said, “I have so much energy. I don’t know what 60 is supposed to feel like, but I don’t feel it. I’m looking forward to the day when cancer treatments aren’t my full-time job,” she said. “I’m not really concerned about what the next step will be because it always happens that doors are opened. And, I feel they are doors I would not even have anticipated. And, they’re better than what I would have planned for myself,” she said. 

“I really see myself in one of these liminal spaces right now. They’re places of transformation. I don’t know what the transformation is, but I just know I’m so blessed by family and friends and love.”

Dave Schafer is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.

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