Swimmer Devoted to Pediatric Cancer Research

For 25 years, one woman has galvanized Swim Across America’s Boston volunteers to fund promising pediatric cancer research.

In 25 years, Kitty Tetreault has sat out the annual Swim Across America (SAA) Boston Harbor Islands Swim and Team Relay only twice. The first time she missed the fundraiser for pediatric cancer was four days after giving birth to her daughter. The second was due to a wrist injury.

Still, Mrs. Tetreault, race director and fund raiser extraordinaire, made it to one of the events to cheer on the swimmers supporting pediatric cancer research at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) and Dana Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI).

“Everyone is so committed to the cause. It’s such a special feeling,” says Mrs. Tetreault, leader of the fundraising team, Kitty’s Kats. “Swimmers tell me it’s their favorite day of the summer.”

Swimmers brave chilly waters in the Swim Across America Boston Harbor Islands Swim, which raises funds for pediatric cancer research.
Swimmers brave chilly waters in the Swim Across America Boston Harbor Islands Swim, which raises funds for pediatric cancer research.

Her own recent experience with breast cancer added new meaning to the event for Mrs. Tetreault. Diagnosed in 2015, she underwent treatment and now shares a common bond with the many cancer patients whom she has been supporting for so many years.

Community Swims Together

The SAA Boston Harbor Islands Swim, a 22-mile relay around Boston Harbor Islands to be held on July 7, 2017, and the annual Pool Swim held in April at Harvard University, are part of the critical effort to fund pediatric hematology/oncology and related programs at MGHfC and DFCI. As the organizer for both events, Mrs. Tetreault is thrilled that they keep growing in both popularity and success. She estimates that the Boston SAA events have raised $6 to $8 million over the years to support local pediatric cancer research.

Mrs. Tetreault says the Boston Harbor Swim feels a lot like Thanksgiving. A core group of about 50 swimmers return each year for the daylong event — many with their families. “People have gotten married, had kids and moved away, but still come back every year to support each other and the cause,” she says.

Kitty Tetreault
Kitty Tetreault

Participants are inspired by the presence of Olympic swimmers who are just as passionate about the event as everyone else. “Some swimmers try to beat the Olympians,” Mrs. Tetreault says with a laugh.

Impact on Pediatric Cancer Research

Each year, SAA swimmers visit MGHfC to hear from researchers and doctors about how the funds they raise are being used to fight cancer. Swimmers also meet patients, and the Olympians show their medals to patients.

David Sweetser, MD, PhD, a pediatric oncologist and chief of Medical Genetics at MGHfC, has seen the impact of SAA fundraising first-hand as a recipient of a grant. His lab’s leukemia research is focused on how tumor suppressor genes work to prevent cancer from forming. Using the funds, his lab revealed a way that these genes repress cancer-causing inflammation pathways in certain cells — a discovery he plans to use to develop a new treatment for leukemia and test it in clinical trials.

“This promising pilot information has allowed us to secure other funding to develop this whole new line of research,” Dr. Sweetser says. “None of it would have been possible without SAA.”

His gratitude inspired him to take the plunge as an SAA fundraiser himself, and he now does the annual Pool Swim with his wife and daughter. “It’s been wonderful to see how much fun people are having while connecting with this cause,” he says. “I’ll keep doing the swim and contributing to this cause even after our SAA funding ends.”

David Sweetser, MD, PhD
David Sweetser, MD, PhD

Boston Harbor Islands Swim Endures

“When I first started running these events more than 20 years ago, I didn’t know anyone who had cancer,” Mrs. Tetreault says. “Once I got involved, it was amazing to see just how many people had connections to cancer.”

She wasn’t surprised, then, when she was diagnosed herself a year-and-a-half ago. After radiation treatment and lumpectomy surgery, she is in remission. “I’m fine now and consider myself one of the lucky ones,” she says.

Her positive perspective buoyed her during last year’s Boston Harbor Islands Swim. It was a very cold day and the ocean felt freezing, so there wasn’t the usual delight in diving in. “We had visited kids getting treated at the hospital the day before and saw how incredibly hard it was for them and their parents,” she says. “When I’m trying to motivate, I remember why I’m doing this and who I’m swimming for.”

To learn more about Swim Across America or to support the pediatric cancer program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, please contact us.