Charlotte Kelly hated having her chemotherapy port accessed, but her mother, Patrice, found a way to calm the toddler. Each time tears came, Patrice would rub her nose against Charlotte’s – and the pair would get past their fears together.
Today the ritual continues, even though Charlotte’s last neuroblastoma checkup at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center was six years ago. Now it is Patrice who has her port accessed routinely as part of her antibody treatment for stage IV breast cancer, and when she closes her eyes she can feel Charlotte there beside her.
She died at age 5 in December 2011, but Charlotte Rose Kelly is still helping her mother past the tough stuff.
“I feel her every time; it’s our moments together,” says Patrice Kelly, a patient in the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers. “When I’m scared I think to myself, ‘If she could do it, I can do it.’”
Patrice knows she will always feel the loss of Charlotte, but focuses on the positive aspects of her Dana-Farber journey. During the two and a half years that Charlotte was in treatment (including a relapse and two stem cell transplants), Patrice was her constant companion, sleeping beside her on the sixth floor of Boston Children’s Hospital for months at a time. It was a unique bonding opportunity, and they were helped through each new challenge by dad and husband Greg, and big brothers Owen and Shane.
“From the day she was diagnosed until the day she passed away, the care Charlotte received at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Jimmy Fund Clinic was amazing,” Patrice says. “Her oncologist Dr. Suzanne Shusterman, her nurses and nurse practitioners, and everybody else at both places became like family to us. It was almost like a home away from home.”
To honor her memory, and with Patrice and Greg’s blessing, a committee comprised of extended family and friends established Prayers for Charlotte, a nonprofit that raises money to assist families fighting pediatric cancer. The foundation’s major event is a road race near the family’s Braintree, Massachusetts, home each April; Charlotte was able to attend the first race, in 2011, and more than 3,000 friends and neighbors turned out this year.
The Kelly family expanded in July 2014, welcoming another baby girl. Patrice became so busy with little Alexandra Charlotte, her growing boys, the foundation, and her job as an elementary school speech therapist, that she let a sore back and persistent cough slide until winding up in the emergency room with a collapsed lung in April 2015. Tests revealed breast cancer, and Patrice began nine months of active treatment.
“Patrice had been through so much and came to us very sick from her breast cancer.” says Ann Partridge, MD, MPH, Patrice’s primary oncologist. “Fortunately, we have been able to get her disease under control, and she has been amazingly resilient and positive through it all.”
The drive to Dana-Farber for checkups every three weeks is “bittersweet” for Patrice, who ran into one of Charlotte’s former nurses on a recent visit. In a strange way, she explains, her own cancer made her appreciate life again. While focusing on getting better, she can enjoy moments like a trip to the gym or a quiet night on the deck.
Or rubbing up to her little girl’s nose.
Learn more about breast cancer treatment for young women at Dana-Farber.