Carolyn Kaelin, 54, Surgical Oncologist and Researcher
Carolyn Mary Kaelin, a surgical oncologist in the Women’s Cancers Program at Dana-Farber and director of the Breast Clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, died July 28, surrounded by loved ones. Kaelin was 54.
Kaelin graduated from Smith College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She earned her master’s degree from the Harvard School of Public Health. At 34, she became the founding director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at BWH, at that time the youngest woman singled out for a job of this caliber at a major Harvard teaching hospital.
Also active in research, she focused on how doctors and patients make medical decisions and on quality-of-life issues for breast cancer survivors, particularly the role of exercise. In 2001, Newsweek featured her as one of “15 Women of the New Century.”
Kaelin received numerous honors, including an Exceptional Woman Award from Candy O’Terry and WMJX, as well as the Mary Horrigan Connors Award at BWH, recognizing her outstanding commitment to women’s health.
An avid athlete, Kaelin participated several times in the Pan-Mass Challenge, a 192-mile bicycle ride fundraiser for Dana-Farber. Shortly after a training ride in 2003, she noticed early signs of her own breast cancer. After several attempts at breast conservation surgery failed, she had a mastectomy. Nonetheless, while still recovering from surgery, she rode the challenge with Team WOW, Women Oncologists on Wheels.
A rare complication of breast cancer therapy prevented Kaelin from returning to clinical practice. Instead, she focused on her patient education and survivorship efforts, with an emphasis on the underserved.
She initiated research on the value of rowing for patients with postoperative lymphedema, with an assist from Olympian Holly Metcalf, the founder of We Can Row. She co-authored two award-winning books, Living through Breast Cancer and The Breast Cancer Survivor’s Fitness Plan, and helped create an innovative, exercise-centered breast cancer recovery program for the YMCA.
Kaelin also established the Quality of Life Fund at BWH to support breast cancer survivorship projects and launched the successful Knowledge, Strength, and Grace conference series for breast cancer patients and their families.
In Aspen, Colo., Carolyn’s adopted second home where she loved to bicycle and hike, she cofounded the Quality of Life Cancer Fund with her friend Barbara Berger. Under the stewardship of the Berger family, this fund raises more than $100,000 each year to support indigent cancer patients living in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
In 2010, Kaelin was diagnosed with brain cancer unrelated to her previous breast cancer. She had two brain surgeries, each requiring extensive rehabilitation so that she could relearn to walk.
“We will miss her warmth, energy, intelligence, compassion, and humor,” said Eric Winer, director of the Breast Oncology Center in the Susan F. Smith Center, and Kaelin’s oncologist following her breast cancer diagnosis. “She was uncompromising in her pursuit of truly outstanding care for each and every patient. I learned more from guiding her through the breast cancer experience than one could imagine.”
Kaelin is survived by her husband William Kaelin, Jr., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Dana-Farber and a professor at Harvard Medical School, and her children, Kathryn Grace and William (Tripp).
Kaelin’s obituary published in the Boston Globe is available here.