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Dana-Farber mourns the death of breast surgeon Carolyn Kaelin, MD, MPH, FACS

  • Carolyn Kaelin, MD, MPH, FACS

    The Dana-Farber community is saddened by the death of Carolyn Mary Kaelin, MD, MPH, FACS, of Boston, MA, who died on July 28, surrounded by loved ones. A gifted and compassionate breast cancer surgeon, Dr. Kaelin was a surgical oncologist in the Women's Cancers Program at Dana-Farber and director of the Breast Clinic at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH).

    Dr. 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. She quickly established herself as one of the nation's premier breast cancer surgeons. Also active in research, Dr. Kaelin 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."

    An avid athlete, Dr. Kaelin rode repeatedly 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, Dr. Kaelin rode the PMC with Team WOW (Women Oncologists on Wheels).

    Sadly, a rare complication of breast cancer therapy prevented Dr. Kaelin from returning to the clinical practice and patients that she so loved. Instead, she redoubled her patient education and survivorship efforts, with a particular emphasis on the underserved, all while being a devoted mother to her two children.

    Dr. Kaelin rode in the Pan-Mass Challenge fundraiser several times. (photo by Steve Marsel)

    Through many actions, Dr. Kaelin vastly improved the lives of women facing breast cancer. A pathfinder with vision and the steel to see it through, 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.

    Intent on using her experiences to help others, Dr. Kaelin 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, Colorado, Carolyn's adopted second home where she loved to bicycle and hike, she cofounded the Quality of Life Cancer Fund with her dear 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.

    Both a beacon and a powerhouse, Dr. Kaelin was empathetic, upbeat, deeply kind, intelligent, and gracious. She 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.

    In 2010, Dr. 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, and she was a trailblazer on several clinical trials testing new medical treatments for brain cancer. Always indomitable, she faced innumerable challenges, yet rose to each one, roaring back from setbacks to spend increasingly precious time with close friends and her family, who meant the world to her.

    "We will miss her warmth, energy, intelligence, compassion, and humor," said Eric Winer, MD, director of the Breast Oncology Center in the Susan F. Smith Center, and Carolyn'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."

    Dr. Kaelin is survived by her husband William G. Kaelin, Jr., MD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Dana-Farber and Harvard Medical School Professor, and her children Kathryn Grace and William (Tripp).

    In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made in memory of Dr. Carolyn Kaelin to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to support brain tumor research under the supervision of Dr. Patrick Wen. To make your gift online, please visit To give by mail, please send a check payable to Dana-Farber to: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Jimmy Fund, 10 Brookline Place West, Brookline, MA 02445, noting "Carolyn Kaelin" in the memo field. Gifts may also be charged by phone by calling the Development Office at 617-632-6099.

    Read Dr. Kaelin's obituary in the Boston Globe 

Posted on August 03, 2015

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