Breast cancer surgeon Dr. Carolyn Kaelin dies at 54

Twenty years ago, Dr. Carolyn M. Kaelin became founding director of Comprehensive Breast Health Center at Brigham and Women’s, the youngest woman to hold a post of that distinction at a top Harvard teaching hospital.
Twenty years ago, Dr. Carolyn M. Kaelin became founding director of Comprehensive Breast Health Center at Brigham and Women’s, the youngest woman to hold a post of that distinction at a top Harvard teaching hospital. –Brigham and Women's Hospital

Dr. Carolyn M. Kaelin infused her work with breast cancer patients with sympathy, but that turned to empathy when she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. In 2010, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. She died at 54 in Charleston on Tuesday.

Her death is a loss not just for her loved ones, colleagues, and patients, but for the entire medical world. When she first became the founding director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital twenty years ago, she was the youngest woman to have a position of that caliber at a major Harvard teaching hospital. She was featured as one of Newsweek’s 15 Women of the New Century. As one of the leading breast-cancer surgeons and a Harvard Medical School faculty member, her research focused on patient quality of life after breast-cancer treatment.

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“It’s a loss that ultimately has implications for people well beyond the walls of our institution,’’ Dr. Eric Winer, director of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s breast cancer program, told The Boston Globe. Winer was Dr. Kaelin’s friend and doctor.

Dr. Kaelin cared about her patients, and that was evident in her explanation of how she chose her focus. She told the Globe in 1999 that she was drawn to her specialty in part by “the aspect of being a family practitioner: You really see the patients long-term. Unlike repairing somebody’s hernia or removing a gallbladder and then seeing the patient one more time for a post-op check, with a breast cancer patient, once you care for them, you care for them for life.’’

Unfortunately, a complication in her own cancer treatment muted sensation in her fingers. Dr. Kaelin stopped performing surgery and focused on patient education and research, as well as her children, Kathryn Grace and William (Tripp).

Her husband, Dr. William G. Kaelin Jr., said that together, they learned what terminal illness can teach.

“Life’s much richer when you don’t take it for granted,’’ he said.

Read the entire Boston Globe obituary of Dr. Carolyn Kaelin here.

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Notable deaths of 2015

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