As reported by Connecticut Magazine, June 2007.

Cancer Warrior

Carolyn Runowicz Came Home to Help Wage the Big Battle

By Terese Karmel

Fourteen years ago, Connecticut physician Carolyn D. Runowicz, a noted crusader for cancer prevention, felt a small lump in her left breast, a discovery that drove her across that scalpel-thin line from healer to patient.

At first, Runowicz experienced the standard reactions to learning she had cancer: disbelief and terror. But that was followed almost immediately by a reaction more typical of this pit bull of a physician - the demand for immediate, aggressive treatment.

Already a prominent oncologist who had developed innovative treatment advances, Runowicz knew what to ask for - and she got it. These days, the tall, blonde 55 year-old physician is a highly regarded no-nonsense practitioner who has written four books (including one about her own experience) and dozens of articles on the subject of cancer in women. In addition, she has made many public appearances, the most notable last summer when, in her capacity as president of the American Cancer Society, shoe in hand (a la Nikita Khrushchev), she urged more than 10,000 survivors (and a host of influential congressmen) on the Washington, D.C., mall to stamp out the disease.

Runowicz's tireless efforts also led indirectly to her coming home to Connecticut in 2003 to accept the position as director of the new Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

"This is a person who, because of her American Cancer Society connections, gave us instant credibility, especially since we're just starting out," says Dr. Peter J. Deckers, executive vice president for health affairs at the health center.

He first heard she might be available a year earlier when she was in Storrs to be honored as a distinguished UConn alumna. "I was asked to present her," says Deckers. "I had known of her and was happy to do it:." At the awards dinner, Runowicz's husband, Dr. Sheldon H. Cherry, a gynecologist and urologist who practices in New York, mentioned she might be recruitable to UConn if the right package could be put together. At the time, she was a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

So it was that Runowicz came to run the cancer program at the UConn Health Center. And as her stature has grown, she has attracted other experts to the center, where some 40 doctors now provide treatment and conduct research in 15 cancer-related specialties.

Beyond treatment and special care, however, Runowicz's passion is prevention. Under her guidance, the center is launching a women's cancer prevention program that will bring together cancer experts, genetic counselors, nutritionists and others to help women understand their risk of cancer, especially breast and ovarian cancer, and develop lifelong prevention strategies.

"Studies show that we now have drugs that actually prevent cancer," she says. ”We stand at the cusp of a new era in cancer medicine with strong emphasis on prevention, early diagnosis and more effective treatments."

The UConn Alumni Association selected Runowicz for that distinguished alumna award in 2002, but decades prior to that, even as an undergraduate on the Storrs campus, there were signs of what was to come. She graduated summa cum laude and salutatorian of the class of 1973 and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa as well as many other campus organizations.

While in Storrs, she lived in the same dormitory (Shippee Hall) that her bricklayer grandfather had helped construct decades earlier. Although her family had moved to Philadelphia by the time she'd gone away to college, she had fond memories of the area, having spent the first decade of her life just 10 miles south in the mill town of Willimantic, where there are still more than a dozen listings for her mother's surname, Bergeron, in the city phone book. (For many years, her family's Bergeron's Market was among the most popular mom-and-pop businesses in town.)

Originally a physical therapy undergraduate major, she switched to biology when a wise School of Allied Health adviser told her she was smart enough "to go for the brass ring," referring to medical school. "I said, 'Okay, I'll do that.'" Runowicz recalls, and within two years she was enrolled at Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, one of 15 women in a class of 200. She finished second in her class there as well.

Her first thought was to specialize in urology, but when told that male patients are often uncomfortable with female physicians, she moved over to gynecology. Role models at Jefferson also influenced her choice, as did her own personality. "At that time, working with women was easy for me," she says. "There was an immediate esprit de corps.”

As the years went by, her list of achievements grew to include authorship, and leadership in various international and national professional organizations, including being the first woman elected president of the Society of Gynecological Oncologists.

But of course all of her professional success and expertise could not protect her from the disease itself.

"My first reaction was disbelief," she says of the day she discovered the lump on her breast. "I remember thinking, 'Maybe it will go away."' When a mammogram later that day didn't reveal anything, her physician suggested she come back in a few months.

"Put that needle in right now," she demanded. A biopsy was performed immediately and a few hours later, she heard those dreaded words: "You've got a bad tumor." The next day she was in surgery for a lumpectomy. The tumor measured only 9 millimeters but the discovery of three positive lymph nodes added to her anxiety.

"Mom, I've only got five years to live,” her mother, Aline Dilworth, recalls her saying during a frantic phone call. The fear alternated with a wry, resolute attitude, as, when she told her father, S. Robert Dilworth, that the wigmaker wondered if he should include the dark roots when he created her coiffure.

Patricia Brawley, a private oncologist in New Orleans and one of Runowicz's best friends (the two met at a medical convention 20 years ago), also recalls a tearful phone call telling her the news.

"The first thing I thought was that something was wrong with Sheldon," Brawley says, referring to Runowicz's husband.” Then she told me it was her."

"I was stunned when she called me," says Cherry, her husband, who teaches and practices three days a week at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "I'm 16 years older than she is - I never thought she'd be the one to have the life-threatening disease. It was the defining moment in our lives."

For more than a year, Runowicz underwent chemotherapy and radiation, and, fortunately, was in a trial group for Tamoxifen, a drug that has been so effective in treating some forms of breast cancer. Her only concession to the disease was working eight hours a day instead of 12.

"She was tough," her father says. "She took powerful treatments, but she kept going."

"She would get chemo at Sloan Kettering on Friday, I'd pick her up and we'd go to our home on Shelter Island," Cherry recalls. "Usually she'd fall asleep in the car, then she'd recuperate over the weekend so she could go into work on Monday." That year, when the couple took their annual winter vacation to St. John, Runowicz hooked herself up to an IV each day and gave herself chemo because she didn't want to disappoint her husband and his family by staying in New York.

"Even when I didn't know how I was going to get out of a chair, I went into overdrive and that's part of who I am today," she tells others about her struggles. "You pick up the pieces and you put the cancer behind you. It's a process of regaining control and regaining your head and moving forward."

But the unfamiliar role of patient haunted her. "Suddenly, not only was I an oncologist giving chemotherapy to my patients, but I was a 41-year-old oncologist having cancer and getting chemotherapy myself."

In retrospect, Runowicz says she would have handled her recuperation differently. "I'd pack up for nine months and take care of myself," she suggests. But it's hard to imagine her slowing down for anything. In fact, Deckers at UConn Health Center worries that she has "too many irons in the fire."

She has been cancer-free for 14 years. Besides the obvious measures (regular selfexams, clinical exams, mammograms), she stays trim and fit, eats as nutritiously as possible, and exercises regularly on the fitness equipment in her Avon home. "I work out like a dog," she says.

Runowicz and Cherry met 19 years ago when she was in training at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, where Cherry is a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology. Both had had previous marriages (Runowicz is the surname of her first husband). "She was a star right from the beginning," Cherry says. "I knew this was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. It was destined."

The couple never had children because, as Runowicz says, "the time was never good." He was older and had children from his first marriage, and then at 41, after five years of marriage, she got the news about breast cancer. Had she gotten pregnant in her late 30s, she says she might not be alive today, because the effect of pregnancy hormones on an undiagnosed tumor can be fatal. She also wonders if having children might have prevented her from pursuing her career, but then quickly acknowledges that "to have both is doable, but I'm not sure I would have done it."

Cherry is also prominent in his field (his 1975 book, Understanding Pregnancy and Childbirth, has had multiple printings), but says he and his wife approach their careers "not with a sense of competition but as a partnership that contributes to our successes. We share each other's joys and sorrows. Her breast cancer put everything in perspective."

He recalls a dinner in which the wife of a colleague asked him, '"What's it like to be married to a famous woman?' I told her, 'I met Carolyn when she was an intern, I knew her as a resident and as a fellow, and that's when we fell in love. I didn't fall in love with a wonder woman.'"

Although Runowicz splits her time between flying off to meetings, administrating the cancer center and doing research, she continues to see patients on a regular basis. Those who have worked alongside her and those whom she has treated praise her for her thorough, caring manner as a practitioner.

"She was very clear about everything," recalls Karen Scotti, a 55-year-old school social worker from Columbia whom Runowicz treated for uterine cancer. "My husband and I felt very comfortable talking to her - she was obviously so skilled and knowledgeable, but very down to earth."

Scotti says Runowicz never actually told her in so many words that she had once been treated for cancer herself, but her advice on one small thing - purchasing a wig - "told me she had been on the other side of the bed."

Runowicz says hers is a difficult specialty "because you're not always successful." Even when patients ask how much time they've got left, "I never give them a time limit," she says. She learned that lesson many years ago when she was practicing in New York. Every day for weeks, she told the family of a patient in a hospice, "This is the day." Finally, one morning, a family member said "You know, doc, I don't think you know."

She says that sometimes when she's truthful about a patient's chances, people think she's giving up hope. "I tell them I'm not giving up hope, but they do need to know that the person is leaving this earth," she says."

"Carolyn's an excellent physician in what she can bring to a patient," says her husband. "I hope she never gives that up. That's what defines her."