For 95-Year-Old Dana-Farber Volunteer, Serving Cancer Patients is a Proud Privilege

Ingersoll “Sandy” Cunningham has the dignified, silver-haired appearance of a man you’d expect to find sipping tea with friends. So what is this Harvard-educated great-grandfather doing pushing food carts through the hallways of Dana-Farber, handing out sandwiches to patients?

“You’ve got to have some objective when you get up in the morning, a purpose and a place to be,” a retired investment advisor who has spent the last 20 years serving lunch to cancer patients off a food cart as a weekly volunteer at Dana-Farber. “This is mine. I used to take care of people and their money; now I take care of people facing cancer.”

Possessing a warm smile and gentle, mischievous manner, Cunningham knows just how to put patients at ease. He loves making them laugh, whether by singing “going to get the Mayonnaise” while searching his cart for condiments or by donning a tuxedo, top hat, and red clown nose during his shift, as he did for years on Valentine’s Day.

Sandy Cunningham

Most importantly, he understands just what patients and families are going through—because he’s been there himself.

His wife of 56 years, Sheila, died of cancer. So did two of her brothers, two sister-in-law, and his own two brothers. Sandy has prostate cancer, and, like Sheila, was treated at Dana-Farber. Most recently, he’s been there for his daughter Jen’s cancer experience. He knows the drill.

“These patients often have a long drive in, and then need to give blood, meet with their doctor, and get a chemotherapy infusion,” Cunningham explains. “They welcome the chance to talk, and I get—and learn—so much from them.”

Approaching patients at their infusion chairs, Cunningham’s eyes sparkle and his voice rises with enthusiasm as he rattles off his menu of offerings. Then, after delivering their tuna on wheat or bag of chocolate chip cookies, he chats with them about their lives outside Dana-Farber.

“He’s a character, and so friendly,” says Deb Graff, a multiple myeloma patient. “Because of his own experience, he brings a lot of credibility to his job.”

“Sandy is full of a joy for life that’s evident the second you lay eyes on him,” says Patricia Stahl, M.Ed, senior manager of Volunteer Services and Programs at Dana-Farber. “He adds courage, humor and kindness to each sandwich he serves.”

Sandy with Deborah 150

Asked about the prime motivations for his volunteerism, Cunningham cites two: his late wife and his father.

“Sheila was the greatest human being I’ve ever met, and I’ve known some real Cracker-Jacks,” Cunningham says in his trademark folksy style. Founding president of the Friends of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an all-volunteer giving organization that has allocated more than $35 million to cancer research, care, and support programs at Dana-Farber, Sheila Cunningham devoted her life to helping others in addition to raising their five children. One of their daughters, Jen, is a past co-president of the Friends and currently vice president of patient services for the group.

“It’s just a wonderful, giving family,” says Dawn Belizaire, program director for the Friends. “Sandy is a sweetheart who tells the funniest jokes.”

Sandy’s father, John H. Cunningham, MD, was a surgeon who let his son follow him on his rounds as a young boy. Although the family lived comfortably, Dr. Cunningham reminded his children that “everybody pulls the oar.” This included a stint for Sandy in the Navy during World War II, which interrupted his years at Harvard.

“We were damn lucky, and he never let us forget it. He expected us to always make time for others.”

That is why, retired after more than 40 years with Bank of Boston, and married to his and Sheila’s dear friend, Joanna, Sandy keeps pulling the oar.

“There is never a day when somebody doesn’t say, ‘I am so thankful for what you do for us,’ says Cunningham. “As a volunteer, that’s our payment. And I hope that after seeing my story, more people consider joining us.”

26 responses to “For 95-Year-Old Dana-Farber Volunteer, Serving Cancer Patients is a Proud Privilege

  1. That’s my Dad for you. My family has been lucky to be in a position to help others. Besides my Dad and sister Jen, my sister Kit is deeply involved in Hope Lodge, which provides housing for families of patients while they are in Boston (and otehr locations around the country) for treatment.

    I am proud to be part of this family!!

    Fred Cunningham

    1. I don’t know your Dad. I just stumbled upon the article. What a wonderful man. He sounds like he’s one in a million.

      All the best to your family.

      Scott Coen

    2. What a wonderful Dad you have!!!! Having been a patient at Dana Farber for cancer surgery myself I can imagine the joy and ease he gives to patients going through treatment. He truly is a blessing. You must be a very proud son. I only wish I was able to meet him.

    3. I am so very grateful for Sandy Cunningham and all the light and love that he and all the DFCI volunteers n staffers bring to the cancer treatment experience. I am presently in my 13th year of receiving chemotherapy without a break, except for multiple surgeries, and ABS9LUTELY LOVE LOVE LOVE Dana Farber, and truly would not be here today without all of them n God ing life.

    4. Sandy served me a sandwich back in 2015 when I was being treated for lymphoma. He was adorable. Only sorry our days didn’t coincide again! Best of health and happiness to your wonderful father.

    1. Everything said here about Sandy is true. He married my Mom 14 years ago and he has been a blessing to my family ever since. We’re so lucky to have him in our lives.

  2. Thank you Sandy for all you have done at DFCI! You bring the world to
    many patients.
    The very best to you and your family!

    Suzanne Conlin

  3. Fred, Kit, and Jen,
    Your father, Sandy, and departed mother, Shiela, will always be special to Kathleen and me. Who else but Sandy would offer their Needham home to two strangers on the very first day Sandy met us? It was Memorial Day and Sandy was decked out in US flag bow tie, hat and vest. I was close to dying and Sandy encouraged me to try to eat a sandwich and make plans for the 9 month scheduled duration of the clinical trial for which we left our Ohio home.
    That was 17 years ago in 2002, and it seems like yesterday. I would not be alive without Dana and Sandy.
    Please let me know how how he and Joan are doing. Thanks for all you do for Dana and the ACS Boston Hope Lodge.
    Jim Bond
    27 year stage 4 myeloma survivor. Jim.bond48@gmail.com

    1. Dear, Dear Jim!
      We remember when Dad told Mom that he had met you that day and you were moving in for the summer! Family lore for sure. We remember your time in Needham fondly and are so thankful that you continue to thrive so long after diagnosis.
      Lots of love,
      Jen

  4. Fred, Kit and Jen,
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview, your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Fred, Kit, and Jen,
    Your father, Sandy, and departed mother, Shiela, will always be special to Kathleen and me. Who else but Sandy would offer their Needham home to two strangers on the very first day Sandy met us? It was Memorial Day and Sandy was decked out in US flag bow tie, hat and vest. I was close to dying and Sandy encouraged me to try to eat a sandwich and make plans for the 9 month scheduled duration of the clinical trial for which we left our Ohio home.
    That was 17 years ago in 2002, and it seems like yesterday. I would not be alive without Dana and Sandy.
    Please let me know how how he and Joan are doing. Thanks for all you do for Dana and the ACS Boston Hope Lodge.
    Jim Bond
    27 year stage 4 myeloma survivor. Jim.bond48@gmail.com

  5. What a remarkable story and remarkable man! As a fellow volunteer at Dana Farber, he is truly an inspiration to us all! I hope I get a chance to meet Sandy at the next volunteer event.
    Rick Fingerman, Liaison to the Pro Bono Financial Coaching Program

  6. I remember Sandy very well as a kind, caring and dedicated volunteer. While my husband was receiving treatment from 2010 to 2014 Sandy was always there to serve up lunch and a story. My husband Gary always looked forward to his visits and his smiles. He brightened his treatments each month.
    Thank you Sandy, you are a treasure.

    1. Hi,
      I am so grateful, as soon as I saw your father I knew who he was. Your Dad is the best he always goes and jokes around with my 23 yr old son which is battling Non Hodgkins Lymphoma. God bless him and his family. 💋💋💋 Arroyo Family

  7. I think I remember seeing your dad when I took my mom every week to DF. Every SINGLE person there is truly compassionate about the patients and caregivers. We were so grateful for the care mom received. DF gave her another two years which is big considering she lived with Stage 4 breast cancer with brain METs for 10.5 years! We will never forget the staff at DF.

  8. I had the pleasure of meeting Sandy while I was volunteering for a couple of years a few years back. He was such a consistent presence and well loved by all the patients. Keep it up Sandy and THANK YOU!!!!!

  9. I just happened to open your newsletter today and saw the article on Mr. Cunningham along with the subsequent comments from other readers. I do not know Mr. Cunningham or his family but wanted to take the time to thank him for putting a spring in my step today AND a renewed enthusiasm for my own volunteer work.
    ~ Mary Anderson
    Charlotte, North Carolina

  10. I have had the pleasure of having Sandy offer me lunch during many of my infusions. He is such a kind and gentle man. My husband and I enjoy his conversations and we want to personally express our appreciation for his volunteerism! He embodies the true heart and soul of everyone who we have met at Dana Farber! Looking forward to seeing you again Sandy!

  11. Thank you Sandy and all the people that touch the patients at Dana Farber!!
    The world needs more people like you thank you

  12. This profile of Mr. Cunningham is wonderful, and he is extraordinary. I have been outpatient at DFCI for many years, and inpatient at the Brig more than I wish to recall. I have not met him personally, but on behalf of patients everywhere, thank you for your service to us, and thank you to the dedicated staff of both of these institutions. You make a difference every day.

  13. My husband is a participant in a drug trial at DF for patients with CLL. We made many trips to Boston from Albany NY in the last 6 months. Sandy served my husband on the day of his last infusion. He had such an upbeat presence and took the time to chat with us. Would never have guessed his age. His outlook must keep him young. We are thankful for all the staff & volunteers at DF for their caring & compassion. Sandy is a great example for all of us.

Comments are closed.