Dana-Farber team helps teacher find inner strength during breast cancer fight

Before a diagnosis of breast cancer, a double mastectomy, and months of grueling treatment, fifth-grader teacher and mom Colleen Sullivan “never, ever” would have IMG_6128-225x300described herself as strong or envisioned a classroom full of 10-year-olds clapping as she removed her wig. But Colleen’s journey fighting cancer at Dana-Farber has given her a new perspective of herself—and on life.

“Life is a gift,” she says. “I now understand the idea of stopping to smell the roses.”

Colleen was diagnosed after her primary care doctor found a lump during an annual physical. Within days, tests confirmed that she had invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC). As a healthy 39-year-old mother of three, Colleen couldn’t believe it.

“I thought ‘Why me?’ I couldn’t process what was happening.”

Colleen was referred to Dana-Farber and met with Harold Burstein, MD, PhD, breast oncologist in the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber. Dr. Burstein immediately made Colleen feel at peace and assured her they would do whatever it took to beat her cancer.

“The moment I met with him, I felt he was my ‘soul doctor,’” she recalls.

In addition to Dr. Burstein, Colleen was comforted and empowered by the entire “army of Dana-Farber caregivers” behind her—a team of nurses, nurse practitioners, and social workers who helped Colleen and her husband, Brian, figure out how to tell their three young daughters what was happening.

The conversations with daughters Meghan, 10, Emily, 9, and Caroline, 5, were the most difficult of Colleen’s life, but her confidence in Dr. Burstein and her Dana-Farber team helped her reassure her girls she was “still Mom.”

Colleen missed five weeks of the 2013-2014 school year due to her surgery, but she was able to return to the classroom before summer break. She was anxious and excited to begin a new year this September. To make her students feel comfortable on the first day of school, Colleen decided to wear her wig even though it was a warm day and she rarely wore it.

After explaining her diagnosis and treatment to her fifth graders, Colleen showed them a segment of the WEEI-NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon in which she appeared without her wig. Her students asked her questions about cancer, and some asked if she was still bald. After learning Colleen was wearing a wig, a few of the students asked if she would take it off. With slight trepidation, she slowly removed her wig and the room exploded with applause from her students. She hasn’t worn the wig since.

“It makes me feel so accepted. I can just be myself,” Colleen says. “I have a new sense of confidence and power, and I know I’m strong after my journey at Dana-Farber. I’m going to get through this no matter what!”

Courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

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