Advancing cancer research: 2 women turn pain into a mission, message

A Marquette University student is taking pain from a loss and a passion for science to help advance cancer research. 

Joceline Helmbreck and a team of researchers at Marquette University are studying a particular FDA-approved drug's effects on Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that occurs in bones or in the soft tissues around the bones. 

"Ewing’s Sarcoma is one of the most understudied pediatric cancers, and it’s one of the more rare pediatric bone cancers," Helmbreck said. 

Joceline Helmbreck

They are looking into the overproduction of the LSD1 protein, which is linked to the disease.

"The idea behind the drug we’re studying, is that if you stop LSD1 from doing its job when it’s in that overproduced state that you can stop tumor growth," Helmbreck said. 

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This research is personal. Helmbreck's older sister Jessie died from Ewing's Sarcoma five years ago. 

"Every time I learn something new, I relate it to my sister," Helmbreck said. "She fought it for 13 years. She passed away six days after her 16th birthday."

Joceline Helmbreck and her sister, Jessie

The personal connection has fueled this student's mission. 

"My long-term goal would be being able to contribute to the research," Helmbreck said.  "Even if I have a small part to play in what will hopefully be a bigger clinical trial that can help a family."

The research will take time, but it is uplifting to Ewing's Sarcoma patients like Courtney Makinen. 

"I definitely have an appreciation for people who are helping make a change," Makinen said. 

Courtney Makinen

The 24-year-old's cancer journey began in 2018. She was 20, a junior in college, and a playing on the school softball team. 

"I was working out, and I felt a pop in my back," Makinen said. "They found something big in my spine, eating away at my spine."

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It was Ewing's Sarcoma. Makinen was treated and went into remission. In 2021 the cancer returned. 

Cancer has taken a lot from both Helmbreck and Makinen. By sharing their stories, both are giving back. 

"I try my best to inspire people by keeping a positive mind and continue to smile through the pain," Courtney Makinen said.