Brigham and Women’s Hospital mourns the passing of Carolyn Mary Kaelin, MD, MPH, FACS, who died surrounded by loved ones on July 28. Dr. Kaelin was a gifted and compassionate breast cancer surgeon at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center and the founding director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at BWH.
Dr. Kaelin graduated from Smith College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She earned her master’s degree from Harvard School of Public Health. At 34, she became the founding director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center, then the youngest woman to hold such a position at a major Harvard-affiliated 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 the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. 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 she so loved. She instead redoubled her patient education and survivorship efforts, with a particular emphasis on the underserved, all while being a devoted mother to her two children.
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 in patients with postoperative lymphedema with an assist from Olympian Holly Metcalf, the founder of We Can Row, 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, Dr. Kaelin’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 over $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 Women Award from Candy O’Terry and WMJX as well as the Mary Horrigan Connors Award at Brigham and Women’s Hospital recognizing her outstanding commitment to women’s health.
In 2010, Dr. Kaelin was diagnosed with brain cancer unrelated to her previous breast cancer. In the course of her treatments, 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.
“Our hearts go out to the Dr. Kaelin family in this time of profound loss and sadness,” said Michael Zinner, MD, BWH surgeon-in-chief. “As we grieve for our dear colleague and friend, let us find some comfort in the remarkable legacy she leaves behind. In her life, she made an everlasting difference to each patient who came to her for care and to every colleague she mentored. Let us be inspired by her example of grace and fortitude.”
Dr. Kaelin is survived by her husband, William G. Kaelin, Jr., MD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School professor, and her children Kathryn Grace and William (Tripp), her parents Mary and Richard Scerbo of Boston, brother Richard Scerbo of Boston and his wife Ellen Scerbo, and many loving aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins, and in-laws.
A memorial service will be held at St. Ignatius Church in Chestnut Hill on Friday, August 28, at 4 pm. Guests are welcome to wear a touch of pink.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that gifts be made to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.