Boston Marathon Run is Mother-Daughter Moment for Breast and Uterine Cancer Survivor 

Written by: Saul Wisnia

Runners call it Heartbreak Hill, but for Michelle O’Brien the long, rising stretch of pavement that crosses the 20-mile point of the Boston Marathon® route represents the top of the mountain.  

Just over three years after being diagnosed in back-to-back months with two unrelated cancers — invasive breast cancer in December 2020, and then stage III uterine/endometrial cancer in January 2021 — O’Brien, 53, will aim to reach this peak ​​on Monday as she competes in the 2024 Boston Marathon. By her side for the 26.2-mile journey will be her daughter, Kate, 21, who has been returning home from the University of Vermont to Needham, Mass, most weekends to join Michelle on training runs. 

The O’Briens are part of the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge (DFMC) team, a charity squad made up of more than 500 runners who are fundraising for the Claudia Adams Barr Program in Innovative Basic Cancer Research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. And even though neither Michelle nor Kate has run the race before, it feels like a full-circle moment for them both. 

For decades, the O’Brien family has watched the Boston Marathon at the home of close family right at the top of Heartbreak Hill. It was there the clan cheered on Michelle’s brother-in-law, Emmett, as he ran Boston with the DFMC team 16 times to honor his wife Carolyn — a leukemia survivor also treated at Dana-Farber. Two of their children also took turns running the famed Hopkinton-to-Copley Square route while supporting cancer research. 

“I feel like my life is going to flash before my eyes, because this race and this cause has been such an important thing to me for so long,” says Michelle. “Since I was in college at Boston University, and then all those years watching family and friends run. Now, after being treated myself, to be running it with Kate? I get emotional just thinking about it.” 

Kate (left) and mom Michelle O’Brien are all smiles as they ready for Monday’s Boston Marathon.
Kate (left) and mom Michelle O’Brien are all smiles as they ready for Monday’s Boston Marathon.

Struck by lightning 

When she received her breast cancer diagnosis in December 2020, Michelle recalls, she was surprised — but not completely shocked. Her mother and sister were breast cancer survivors, so she always had a feeling she might face it too. 

“Because of my family history, I was diligent about getting my mammograms and having that peace of mind,” says Michelle. “When I learned I had breast cancer I thought, ‘I got this. My mom and my sister did great. It’s going to be OK.’”

Michelle knew she wanted to be treated at Dana-Farber Brigham, and in January 2021 was going through routine tests in preparation for a mastectomy when she received news that did shock her: she also had uterine/endometrial cancer. 

“That totally came out of left field,” says Michelle. “I didn’t fit the profile of someone who would typically get endometrial cancer, and when I asked the doctors if there was any connection between my two cancers, they said, ‘No, you were just struck by lightning twice at the same time.’” 

Married, and the mother of three daughters, Michelle would have to undergo much of her treatment for both cancers without loved ones by her side at the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions. She says the professionalism and compassion of her Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center teams was crucial during this initial period.  

“This huge team of specialists on both sides came together with me and my husband, Tom, figuring out the best way to proceed,” says Michelle. “It was incredible how they took care of everything and gave me so much confidence.” 

In the end, it was decided the best course of action was to address Michelle’s uterine cancer first. She had a hysterectomy in February 2021, and then 18 weeks of chemotherapy and three radiation treatments under the care of surgical oncologist Michelle Davis, MD, and medical oncologist Carolyn Krasner, MD, in Dana-Farber Brigham’s Gynecologic Oncology Program.  

Michelle and Kate O’Brien have long been walking/running buddies.
Michelle and Kate O’Brien have long been walking/running buddies.

Once that was completed, it was time to address her breast cancer. A team in the Breast Oncology Program led by surgical oncologist Laura Dominici, MD, FACS, plastic surgeon Jessica Erdmann-Sager, MD, FACS, and medical oncologist Erica Mayer, MD, MPH, led this treatment, which included a mastectomy, five weeks of daily radiation, a year-and-a-half of chemotherapy, and reconstruction.  

​​​The majority of Michelle’s care came at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – Chestnut Hill, just a 10-minute drive from her home.  

“When I started treatment the Chestnut Hill campus had just opened, and it was so beautiful,” says Michelle. “I couldn’t have anybody with me for my treatments due to restrictions, but everyone at Dana-Farber went out of their way to make me feel like I was not alone.” 

By mid-2023 Michelle was cancer-free, nearing her 25th anniversary with Tom, and looking for a new challenge — on her terms.  


Kate remembers that from early in her mother’s cancer journey, Michelle began suggesting that she might want to run the Boston Marathon after finishing treatment. Ironically, Kate had been preparing to run a marathon herself in 2020 before COVID canceled the race, and a spark began to form during her phone calls home to mom: perhaps they could run Boston together. 

In 2020, Michelle and Kate O’Brien got inspired at the Boston Marathon finish line.
In 2020, Michelle and Kate O’Brien got inspired at the Boston Marathon finish line.

“It’s really cold and snowy in Vermont, so that makes training in the winter hard,” says Kate. “But I remember coming home freshman year and saying to my mom, “We’re going to do this when you get your strength back.’” 

Now, with both Michelle’s cancers in remission, that time has come.  

“I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for Dana-Farber Brigham, so joining the DFMC team for our run was a no-brainer,” says Michelle. “There are so many ways to give back — it doesn’t have to be a marathon. But this feels right.” 

From their training together, Michelle knows that Kate is the stronger, faster runner. So, while they will toe the starting line side-by-side, Michelle hopes Kate will be far in front by the time each passes the family’s traditional Newton viewing spot.  

Kate has other plans. 

“I hopefully have many more marathons to run, and plenty of time to try and get a personal best finish,” says Kate. “But this is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I really want to be with my mom the whole way.”