Mayor Walsh Reflects on Overcoming Childhood Cancer

Diagnosed at age 7, the mayor talked about the treatment he received at Dana-Farber and Boston Children’s Hospital.

Photo provided by the City of Boston

Photo provided by the City of Boston

Everyone knows that Mayor Walsh grew up and still lives in Dorchester, but he also spent four years of his childhood living elsewhere: Boston Children’s Hospital. So when Walsh stepped to the podium to deliver a speech at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s annual Living Proof fundraiser on a Saturday in early June, it wasn’t public health he was touting: it was his personal health.

Walsh, whose battle with addiction has been widely publicized, also fought another battle—with childhood cancer. In 1974, the seven-year-old future mayor was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare, aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that primarily affects children. For nearly four years, he received inpatient care at Boston Children’s Hospital and outpatient care at Dana-Farber. His mother, Mary Walsh, told the Globe that doctors gave him six weeks to two months to live.

“Every time I drive by, I think of those days,” Mayor Walsh told the room of 200 cancer survivors. “Watching the technology and science grow and how far since 1974 that technology and science has come is incredible. To the survivors out there you have courage, too. To the younger people, you don’t quite understand what it means yet, but as you get older, you’re going to realize the fight you have, the strength that you have. To the folks that are a little older, you know the fight. For those of you that are being treated right now, I know the fight you’re going through.”

Walsh says that when he had cancer, one of the hardest things for him was losing his hair, not only because he was a child, but because he had “really red hair” that was nearly impossible to match, which made buying a wig troublesome.

“The guy on the top floor of my house came down one day and clipped off a piece of my hair and he came back with an identical wig for the color of my hair,” Walsh said in his speech. “On January 6, I got sworn in at Boston College, and I thought about the path that got me to that stage…. I also realized I would not be on that stage if it were not for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. There’s no question in my mind. I am proud to be a cancer survivor. I am honored that kids going through cancer can look to my story for hope.”

Below, watch Mayor Walsh’s full speech at the event:

  • Chloe Godfrey

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  • anon non

    Walsh’s story gave me goose bumps. I worked in a different (but similarly amazing) children’s oncology research hospital in the mid-eighties. By that point the majority of children with some of the most common cancers, like ALL, were surviving but it was still a tough fight and survival was only a recent phenomenon. Survivors were entering unknown territory. We surveyed nearly 200 children who had been treated around the time Mayor Walsh was treated and were disease- free for at least two years. We found that survival was often accompanied by major obstacles. It was a tough fight for most. Even those who survived had residual battles still to be fought. Mayor Walsh defied the odds in that earlier decade.

    Over the years I’ve thought a lot about how the kids I worked with are now; hopefully surviving, hopefully pushing thirty or older; hopefully happy and doing things they find meaningful. I don’t work in that setting anymore. But I can say that it was certainly the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. When I read stories like that of Mayor Walsh I think back on those days and kids with a sense of admiration of them and what they accomplished to make it. Bet they don’t realize how they enriched the lives of those fortunate to have been there while they battled. Mayor Walsh’s story makes me hopeful that those I knew back then are doing well too. Thank you, Mayor Walsh, for sharing your story and showing that survivors of childhood cancer can go on to lead fulfilling and worthwhile lives.