Connell School of Nursing Assistant Dean Susan Donelan (center) chats with Kathleen McGuinness, director of Academic and General Services in the Student Services division (left), and Lect. Eileen Donovan-Kranz (English), at a Nov. 2 reception for Donelan. (Photo by Chad Minnich)
'All You Can Control Is Your Attitude'
CSON's Donelan reflects on undertaking her 'cancer journey'
By Kathleen Sullivan
There were tears aplenty at the Nov. 2 "bon voyage" party for Connell School of Nursing Assistant Dean Susan Donelan, who has breast cancer and recently began a six-month medical leave.
Some of the tears came when Donelan delivered a heartfelt speech about what she described as her "cancer journey." Since the diagnosis some 14 months ago, Donelan's cancer has metastasized to her liver.
But there were also tears of laughter, thanks to the riotous send-off her CSON colleagues gave her, which included hula dancing, a singing performance by the "Nurse Tones" and Donelan's own starring role in a "60 Minutes" video spoof.
It was just the way Donelan wanted it.
Interviewed recently, Donelan, who joined the University in 1987, discussed her determination to lead an active life in spite of cancer. Her love for, and dedication to, the Connell School is evident, as is her colleagues' love and respect for her.
Donelan has received encouraging results from an oral chemotherapy she is undergoing, but also is realistic, she says, about her stage four cancer. She is taking time to travel and spend time with family, many of whom attended her party. After planned trips to Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Paris, Donelan is scheduled to return to BC in May.
"At first I was angry," she said, "but like any problem you face in life, you deal with it. Sometimes all you can control is your attitude."
Donelan says her young nephew's battle with cancer some 15 years ago changed her workaholic ways and made her realize the importance of balance in her life. One of the most important lessons she says she's learned is to not be afraid to show people you care about them.
In an October letter to colleagues and friends, Donelan wrote: "I truly love my husband, my family, my friends and colleagues and I feel your love and concern back for me every day. I can never adequately express how much this means to me. Some people live to be 100 years and they don't have a fraction of the happiness and contentment I have experienced.
"...I've been thinking quite a lot about what life after death might be like and I do not fear it. I'm convinced that what we are experiencing now on earth, as glorious as it can be, is really just the tip of the iceberg of what we will ultimately experience. I think we go on to a higher, more amazing plane of existence. We also live on in the minds and hearts of those who have loved us."
Donelan, according to her colleagues and friends, has been a model of positive attitude, courage and dignity since her cancer diagnosis. Tributes at the Nov. 2 party cited Donelan's organizational and interpersonal skills, work ethic and budget savviness.
CSON Dean Barbara Hazard Munro said, "Sue has been quietly there, working to make certain the School of Nursing is the best it can be." Calling her a "university citizen," Munro also cited Donelan's active role in Business Officers of Nursing Schools, the professional organization for administrators in the nation's nursing schools, of which Donelan is a former president.
In her remarks, Donelan credited the support she has received from Boston College in helping her cope with cancer. "I am overwhelmed by the generosity of the BC community, especially the Connell School of Nursing. I couldn't imagine being in a more supportive place," said Donelan, who earned her master's and doctoral degrees from BC.
Reflecting recently on her years at CSON, Donelan said she admired how faculty and staff would band together to work hard in preparing for accreditation visits. She also recalled how the late William F. Connell's $10 million gift in 2001 infused the school with confidence and pride. Some of her fondest memories, she added, are of the CSON faculty-staff holiday luncheons and Senior Convocations: "They were some of the few times when all the staff and faculty could be together and [CSON Assoc. Prof.] Ronna Krozy and the Nurse Tones would always sing."
As she has coped with cancer, Donelan says, she has come to appreciate the power of science, prayer and love. She says she has been strengthened by the Mass cards and e-mails she has received, and by attending the Wellness Support Group run by Human Resources Service Center Assistant Director Ruth Chobit for members of the BC community whose lives have been touched by cancer.
"Ruth was one of the first people to reach out to me," said Donelan.
Donelan has seen other, more active forms of support. In the fall of 2003, Assoc. Prof. Robin Wood (CSON) organized a group of CSON faculty, staff, and students to participate in the American Cancer Society's fundraising walk along the Charles River. Donelan was able to participate in the walk this year along with her CSON friends and her husband, Jim Boggs.
The CSON group wore matching t-shirts with Donelan's name and a quote that has become her motto:
"Dance as though no one is watching you
Love as though you have never been hurt before,
Sing as though no one can hear you,
Live as though heaven is on earth."