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Turning Heartbreak into Hope for Pediatric Cancer Patients

“This isn’t my giving story. It’s Flynn’s giving story. I’m just making it possible," says Betsy Sullivan, pictured here with her son Flynn.

Donor Story

Turning Heartbreak into Hope for Pediatric Cancer Patients

Betsy Sullivan is marking the one-year anniversary of losing her son Flynn by running the Boston Marathon® and raising funds for Mass General’s pediatric cancer program.

Kelsey Abbruzzese
April 4, 2022

Betsy Sullivan’s running route winds along the coast in her hometown of Narragansett, R.I., and this path is where she feels close to her son Flynn. Her steps retrace the route he raced in Narragansett’s annual Blessing of the Fleet 10-mile event. The fishing spots he enjoyed with the local surf casters club. The seaside chapel where her family held Flynn’s memorial service.

Flynn was treated for synovial sarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer of the body’s soft tissue, at Massachusetts General Hospital. He died in April 2021 at age 20 after a two-year battle. To honor Flynn, Betsy is running in this year’s Boston Marathon® — one year after losing her son — to raise funds for Mass General’s pediatric cancer team.

“Flynn had this wonderful generous spirit,” Betsy says. “Even when he was going through tough challenges, he told me he felt better when he was thinking about other people. I know he would want to help other kids with cancer, and I know he would be proud of my raising funds for research and programs for kids at Mass General.”

“This isn’t my giving story. It’s Flynn’s giving story. I’m just making it possible.”

Compassionate Care After a Family’s Shock

The diagnosis came a few days after Flynn graduated from Narragansett High School, where he ran cross country and played on the tennis team. He was looking forward to attending Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., but instead of heading north for college orientation, Betsy and her husband, Jim, took Flynn to Mass General to meet with surgeons about his tumor.

“It was a complete shock to us,” Betsy says. “The one thing I felt when my world was falling apart is that we knew he was getting the best care in the world at Mass General. They had so much expertise in the field. They knew how to handle his case, and they cared about Flynn as a person.”

Chemotherapy treatments began immediately. Flynn stayed positive, Betsy says, and felt well enough between treatments to keep up his favorite activities: skiing, hiking and whatever else he could do outdoors to turn his attention away from the cancer. One of his favorite times of the year was a trip with his parents and two sisters, Mary Kate and Eily, to Frye Island in Maine. His doctors timed his treatments so Flynn would feel his best during that week.

After a year of chemotherapy, during which he took classes at the Harvard Extension School and the University of Rhode Island, Flynn’s health declined. A clinical trial at Mass General didn’t have the hoped-for results, and Flynn’s oxygen levels dropped precipitously enough to warrant hospitalization in March 2021. COVID-19 pandemic precautions had prevented the family from being at Flynn’s side during many of his treatments. When a Mass General doctor told Betsy the hospital would admit Flynn to the pediatric intensive care unit so they could be with him, she felt a rush of relief and gratitude.

“The level of care at the PICU was amazing,” Betsy says. “We got to know the nurses and doctors and all the therapists, and we felt so comforted to be with that team. They were so compassionate. I felt like it was a family.”

Betsy slept at the hospital every night for the week that Flynn was in the PICU. He was able to be home in Rhode Island for a month before he died. As Betsy puts it, “It’s everything to me that we had him here and held him close.”

“Compared to what he went through, running a marathon isn’t that hard.”

Flynn loved running, and Betsy had always thought he would run a marathon of his own. After his diagnosis and throughout his treatment, she found solace in the daily practice of logging miles.

“I would get up in the morning to go for a run, and I thought my knees would buckle,” Betsy says. “But I would go out there and I felt like when I got back, I could handle whatever challenges I had that day and do my best for him.”

When the opportunity arose to run the Boston Marathon and raise funds for Mass General’s pediatric cancer team, Betsy saw it as a natural way to honor Flynn and help other families enduring a similar experience. Funds raised by the team support cancer care and research initiatives that will lead to improvements in cure rates and enhance the quality of life for the hospital’s youngest cancer patients.

“For these kids going through cancer treatments, I know that Flynn would want it to be better for them,” Betsy says. “These funds are critical. I’m so grateful to have this positive goal, making this Flynn’s gift to other kids with cancer.”

This year’s race will be Betsy’s first Boston Marathon, and she has fond memories of spectating the event at Heartbreak Hill as a Boston College student. When Jim ran the marathon, she and Flynn watched him from that pivotal point.

“My heart is so broken, but I feel Flynn filling it up,” Betsy says. “I know when I get to the top of Heartbreak Hill, I’ll feel him running beside me.” 

If you would like to support Betsy, please visit her fundraising page.

To learn more about Mass General’s marathon team, click here.

John Hancock-Mass General Boston Marathon® Partnership

Mass General is proud to be an official Partner of John Hancock in the Marathon Non-Profit Program. The Non-Profit Program provides more than 1,000 Boston Marathon® bibs to select non-profit organizations throughout the community, which provides organizations with a significant fundraising opportunity. As a Non-Profit Program partner for the past 25 years, Mass General has been able to host more than 2,360 runners who have collectively raised more than $21M for the hospital. Learn more about our John Hancock-Mass General Boston Marathon partnership that continues to provide significant support for our three signature causes: Pediatric Cancer, Emergency Medicine and Home Base.