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Kidney Cancer: The Connolly Family Turns its Pain into Power

Elaine Connolly radiated positivity and life, according to her husband Joseph Connolly.

Donor Story

Kidney Cancer: The Connolly Family Turns its Pain into Power

Despite being among the most common cancers in the US, kidney cancer research is underfunded. The Connolly family is setting out to change that.

Paul Goldsmith
December 22, 2023

Elaine Connolly was the kind of person who lit up a room; who always remembered to send a birthday card; who loved traveling, dining out with her family, and dancing to ‘70s music. Simply put, she radiated positivity and life. And so, when at age 53, Elaine was diagnosed with stage 2 kidney cancer, she met it head on with her trademark positivity.

“We knew it was serious, but we told ourselves we were going to beat it anyway,” says Elaine’s husband, Joe Connolly. “I’m still in shock we didn’t.”

After six and half years of fighting, Elaine passed away from metastatic kidney cancer in September 2018. “It would have been impossible to have gotten better care than what Elaine got from the doctors, nurses and staff at Mass General, and we still lost her,” Joe says.

In the days following that devastating loss, Joe and the couple’s two daughters, Brigid and Taylor decided they wanted to make a difference for other patients battling the disease. But as they worked on Elaine’s obituary, the family came to a troubling conclusion.

“In lieu of flowers, we wanted to ask people to make a donation to kidney cancer research,” says Brigid Gaughan. “But there were so few options. There’s no such thing as a ‘popular’ cancer, but we felt like kidney cancer was completely overlooked.” Frustrated, the Connolly’s decided to turn their grief into action, founding the Elaine M. Connolly Kidney Cancer Fund to raise money for kidney cancer research in the Massachusetts General Hospital.

“It forced us to say, we have to do something for patients at Mass General and elsewhere,” Joe says. “We want to give patients a new hope. Enough is enough.”

Rare, But Deadly

Despite being among the top 10 most common cancers in the US, kidney cancer ranks near the bottom in terms of research funding compared to other subtypes. The reason for the disparity is that most kidney cancers are localized and resolved with surgery. But the long-term outlook declines dramatically if the cancer spreads.

Mass General oncologist and kidney cancer specialist Xin Gao, MD, compares the drop off to metastatic melanoma — which while accounting for only about 1% of all skin cancers, is the leading cause of death from the disease. One of the primary challenges for treating metastatic kidney cancer, is that, like melanoma, it doesn’t respond well to traditional chemotherapy. But there is hope.

Recent advancements, including targeted agents, combination therapies, and most significantly perhaps, immunotherapy hold substantial promise for treating kidney cancer. Dr. Gao and his colleagues in the Mass General Cancer Center are studying many of these promising new therapies in the lab and the clinic, with a special focus on advanced and refractory kidney cancer.

“Although metastatic disease is rare, this group of patients really deserves our attention,” Dr. Gao says. “My hope is that in a few years we’ll have access to a wider array of treatment options that will provide the kind of durable response these patients need.” Now, with the help of the Connolly family, Dr. Gao and his team are doing their best to ensure that hope becomes a reality.

A Brighter Future for Others

Since 2019, the Connollys have raised $400,000 to advance the understanding and treatment of kidney cancer at Mass General. Through a series of efforts, including fundraisers at the Granite Links Golf Course in Quincy, the Connolly family has been able to endow the work of Dr. Gao and his team, and provide flexible funding for the nursing team that treated Elaine.

“We’ve already had some exciting preclinical data, and the support provided by the Connollys has in no small way making our progress possible.”

“We felt helpless sometimes when my mom was sick,” says Taylor Connolly, who raised more than $20,000 for the Mass General Cancer Center running the Boston Marathon in 2018. “But my mom would always go above and beyond to help other people. Why shouldn’t we do the same? Whether than means better treatment, or helping the nurses provide better care for patients, we can make a difference here. We aren’t helpless.”

“To conduct these types of studies and make progress against this disease, it takes a huge team of research associates, coordinators, nursing staff and more,” says Dr. Gao. “We’ve already had some exciting preclinical data, and the support provided by the Connollys has in no small way making our progress possible.”

To learn how you can support the fight against kidney cancer at Mass General, contact us.