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PA Department Rallies Around "Professor F"

June 21, 2021
Professor F gives a peace sign while wearing a surgical mask
PA Instructor Jenny Fanuele has been battling breast cancer for several months.

When the Department of Physician Assistant Studies heard in January that Instructor Jenny Fanuele had been diagnosed with breast cancer, its students, faculty, and staff began a months-long rally to support her. 

Associate Program Director Josh Merson, and students Jasmine Torrey, Hannah Kearney, Jillian Calero, and Caroline Rizzo, created a virtual 5K fundraiser to support the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, where Fanuele would be receiving most of her treatment. Spearheaded by Torrey, the group also designed and made t-shirts with the acronym “Women’s Oncology Matters to Everyone,” or W.O.M.E.N., which Fanuele chose. Torrey also set up a club through the running app STRAVA where people could log their virtual 5K results. 

For Torrey, Fanuele’s cancer hit “close to my heart” – Fanuele was her advisor, and several of Torrey’s family members have had cancer. “We all got together and knew we needed to do something to support Professor F,” said Torrey, using Fanuele’s well-known nickname.  

While the plans were being formulated, Fanuele took a medical leave to focus on beating the Stage 1 cancer. “The students showed incredible ingenuity and thoughtfulness,” she said, noting that she has continued to talk with students about their classes and other academic topics. “The support has been almost overwhelming. It’s been extraordinary.” 

Fanuele had chemotherapy every other week from January to May. During that time, she said students, faculty, and staff have regularly called, emailed, and sent cards to check in on her. An unofficial support group developed when faculty colleagues connected her with two other faculty members diagnosed with breast cancer who were in active treatment: Tiffany Hogan, a professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders and director of the Speech and Language Literacy (SAiL) Lab, and Caitlin Fitzgerald, an assistant professor of physical therapy and associate director of the program’s clinical education. “We’ve all been helping each other get through this,” Fanuele said. 

Fanuele has decided to be outspoken about her breast cancer because she said many people don’t feel comfortable talking about it and she wants to use this opportunity to advocate for health maintenance and screening, which is how her breast cancer was discovered. When the biopsy results came back positive, she felt like a lightning bolt had hit her. “I thought, this couldn’t happen to me. I am healthy and young,” she recalled.  

She said her prognosis for a complete recovery is very good. “The reason I’m doing so well is because it was caught early,” she said, noting that she also has received care at Mass General Hospital. “I sat in waiting rooms and saw people with far more advanced cancer, so I feel very lucky and fortunate.” 

The May 22 virtual 5K raised more than $6,300 for Dana Farber, while t-shirt sales added another $430. Contributions are still being accepted to help reach a $10,000 goal.  

Fanuele plans to return to teaching in the fall, when the Institute plans to resume on-campus education. “I’m looking forward to getting back in the classroom and doing what I came here to do – prepare the next generation of physician assistants and health care leaders,” she said.