Against All Odds: Jean Kelleher’s Story

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On the morning of last month’s big celebration and fundraiser that her friends and family had planned in her honor, Jean Sicard Kelleher suddenly found herself overcome with emotion and harboring serious doubts as to whether she was actually going to make it through the entire event.

(L-R) Amy McCabe, Dottie Kelleher, Jean Sicard Kelleher, Shauna Kelleher, and Katelyn Bianculli

Kelleher, a veteran schoolteacher who was used to being on the giving end of events like these, was now the one on the receiving end, having been blindsided last April by a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

“[On the day of the event] I was so nervous, and I cried and cried and cried,” admitted the mother of two and longtime Canton resident. “I said, ‘How am I going to do this? How am I going to hold it together?’”

Fortunately for Kelleher, one of her childhood friends — someone from her close-knit circle they affectionately call “the chicks” — helped her to put it all in perspective. Noting that most gatherings that size do not occur until after a person dies, she reminded Kelleher that she has a “gift that not many people get.”

“You get to see how many people love you and care about you now,” the friend told Kelleher, her words striking just the right chord at just the right time.

Arriving at the Canton Town Club later that evening, Kelleher was greeted by hundreds of guests, and before long she found herself laughing and smiling and having a “really great time” at the event.

“In my wildest dreams I never believed it would be like that,” she told the Citizen last week, still in awe over the massive turnout.

Initially resistant to the idea of a benefit, Kelleher said her friends went forward with it anyway, and she is now grateful that they did. Others who were “instrumental” in the planning and execution of the event were her sister-in-law Dottie Kelleher, her two nieces, Katelyn Bianculli and Amy McCabe, and her daughter, Shauna.

Held on February 25, the event featured raffles and a silent auction, and according to Kelleher, it was exactly as advertised — a “night of celebration” and a “thank you to all who have helped in countless ways on this difficult journey.”

In fact, Kelleher could not even imagine having to battle this awful disease without the support of her loved ones and community. So many people — from “the chicks,” to the men in her life (husband Michael and son Matthew), to the students and staff at St. John’s School — have been with her every step of the way. Even casual acquaintances, not to mention an anonymous philanthropic organization, have chipped in with financial support and gift cards.

That is not to suggest that things have been easy, of course. Kelleher’s particular form of cancer, pancreatic carcinoma, typically has a poor prognosis, with an average five-year survival rate of only 4 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. That figure can climb to as high as 25 percent under ideal conditions — if the cancer is caught early and the tumor is removed completely.

“Pancreatic cancer, if you do any research — and I did it once and that was a mistake — is extremely aggressive,” acknowledged Kelleher. “And there’s not very good odds; by all rights, if you look at the mean numbers, I should already be dead.”

The good news for Kelleher, in addition to the fact that she looks and feels great nearly a year after her diagnosis, is that her case does not fit the mold in many respects. She has even surprised her doctors, who call her an “anomaly” because of how well the cancer has responded to chemotherapy thus far.

In an ideal world, Kelleher would have already had surgery to remove the tumor. However, due to its size and its placement within the pancreas, she was forced into a kind of waiting pattern that continues to this day.

The actual diagnosis, on the other hand, was sudden and unexpected. After not feeling well for a few weeks, she finally decided to visit a doctor on the Friday before last April vacation. A few days later, the doctors at Newton-Wellesley discovered the tumor in a CT scan, and 45 minutes later she was in an ambulance to Brigham and Women’s.

Almost immediately after that she started chemotherapy, forcing her to take an extended leave of absence from her teaching job at St. John’s and generally turning her life upside down.

Kelleher was fortunate in that she was able to maintain her summer position as a waterfront director at Noble and Greenough in Dedham. However, she also had to be fitted with a pump that administered chemo directly into a port in her chest. She wore this every day for six weeks, alternating with daily doses of radiation treatment that she received at Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston.

As summer stretched into fall, continually positive results on her CT scans made her a likely candidate for surgery. But after a small procedure revealed additional cancerous cells, Kelleher was ordered back onto chemotherapy — a “super-duper” kind that she has continued for the past several months.

At this point, Kelleher said it is fair to wonder whether she will ever have the surgery. And she has come to terms with that possibility — as long as the reports continue to show that the cancer is stagnant.

Amazingly, Kelleher still has her hair and very often has her energy. The biggest challenge, she said, is a condition called neuropathy, a “weird sensation” that she described as a painful version of “pins and needles.”

Kelleher attributes her body’s generally mild response to a combination of factors, most notably her faith in God and the healing power of loved ones’ prayers. She has also started making regular visits to a friend’s uncle, who is an alternative medicine specialist, and has dabbled in everything from Reiki to Sotai to various herbal supplements.

“I’m not going to lie to you. I hate [chemo],” she said. “But I do think a lot of it’s mental, and I do think the faith component is huge.”

Of course, Kelleher is also very fortunate to have the support of “the chicks.” There are 14 in all, including her, and all of them hail from the Canton High School class of 1977. Some of them she has known since grade school, including close friend Marie Monahan.

Close friends and former Ponkapoag School classmates Jean Kelleher and Marie Monahan at age 6

Besides Kelleher and Monahan, the official “chick” roster includes Lori Arsenault, Karen Atocha, Susan Baker, Vicky Balsamo, Betsy Braconi, Laura Drakos, Leslie Mannix, Stephanie McClellan, Kate McNeil, Karen Tripp, Linda Tucker, and Carol Vesey.

“I don’t stay in touch with any of my friends [from Boston College]. I really don’t,” explained Kelleher. “I’ve lost touch with all of them, and these are the constants in my life. They’re like my family because I have just one sister (Claire Lund). I mean, they were, for months, primarily Marie and Lori, every day they were at my door. Every day.”

Just describing their loyalty and support brought Kelleher to tears, and the same was true when she touched on her 28-year connection to the St. John’s community.

She still volunteers regularly — up to 15 days a month — and the students continue to amaze her with all of their kind words and “stacks of cards.”

Primarily a middle school teacher, Kelleher said one of the most difficult experiences was returning to the school after her diagnosis and explaining her illness to the children.

“I went and we had the whole middle school gathered together,” she recalled, “and I went and talked to them. I don’t know how I held it together.”

“It was difficult, but I was honest and I answered their questions,” she added. “They had a lot of great questions, some that I think I needed a doctor to answer.”

These days, most people who run into Kelleher are amazed at how good she looks and find it hard to imagine that it has been almost a year since her diagnosis. And yet for Kelleher, the hardest part now is simply not knowing what lies ahead.

“I’m such a planner,” she confessed. “If you knew me, I’m such a neurotic planner.”

In terms of the cancer, Kelleher said it has basically stayed put, other than a “teeny spot” on her skin that the doctors have been monitoring. If her scans continue to come back clean, she could potentially revisit the option of surgery next fall, but everything is “really up in the air” at this point.

“It’s rotten,” Kelleher said of the disease. “It’s the first thing you think about and it’s the last thing you think about, but there’s a lot that goes on during the day.”

And fortunately for Kelleher, she has been blessed with a triple dose of the best medicine — her friends, her family, and her faith.

“I believe I can be healed in one minute,” said Kelleher. “Am I going to be? I don’t know, but I say, for some reason, I’m on this path and I’m on this journey. And like I said, it hasn’t come without blessings. It puts a lot of things in perspective.”

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