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A man and a woman embrace each other in a pose on the beach.
Thad Throneburg and Kathy Boyd

When Kathleen Boyd graduated from the UNC Adams School of Dentistry and began her career as an endodontist, she thought about putting her future children through college, and she thought about how she could help her community. She started saving for the future, imagining what could be and making sure she was financially able to realize those visions. But a surprise metastatic breast cancer diagnosis in 2020 has led Boyd to start focusing on her present.

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boyd, a Blowing Rock, North Carolina, resident and Adams adjunct faculty member, experienced debilitating back pain that was almost too much to bear. An orthopedist ordered an MRI, saw the results, and an oncologist in Salisbury, North Carolina, delivered the news that cancer had collapsed her vertebrae and was crushing the nerves in her arms. She saw an oncologist in Cary, North Carolina, who urged her to see UNC Lineberger’s Lisa Carey, MD, FASCO, the Richardson and Marilyn Jacobs Preyer Distinguished Professor in Breast Cancer Research. Boyd, 54, learned that the average survival rate for metastatic breast cancer was 25-30 months.

Boyd doesn’t dwell on the statistics, but the words of Maya Angelou ring true for her: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

“It’s not my story that needs to be told,” she said. “It is the story of the thousands of moms, friends and grandmothers with metastatic breast cancer who need a cure.”

Establishing a fund for metastatic breast cancer research

Boyd hopes to change the endings of those stories like hers. Wanting to leave a legacy and be an active participant in finding a cure for her disease, she established the Kathleen Boyd Fund for Metastatic Breast Cancer to support metastatic disease research at UNC Lineberger.

“In my charity fund, I had the money there. I hadn’t thought about what I would do with it. I thought ‘It’s time to spend it, it’s time to give it away,’ ” she said. “It’s more meaningful now to have the charity fund go to something personal now that I’ve been diagnosed.”

Boyd and her husband, Thad Throneburg, had given to other charitable organizations over the years, and she served on the board of the Salisbury Community Foundation, where she was inspired by the legacy gifts she saw that supported the arts and humanities. “With my diagnosis, I thought about what was important to me now,” Boyd said. “What’s very important, in the forefront of my mind, is the fact that there is not a cure for metastatic breast cancer.”

Boyd had researched her cancer and organizations that support breast cancers, and found that only a small percentage of contributions were going to metastatic breast cancer. Boyd had concerns about awareness and catching these cancers early enough to make a difference. She hopes her fund will help combine support for education, for young researchers and for other metastatic breast cancer patients, and she is confident that UNC Lineberger can do just that.

“Having gone to UNC, having been a grad student at UNC, having done research there myself, I would pit UNC minds against any university in the country,” she said. “They’re just brilliant people there, and they have the cancer center that is making great strides. And so I have confidence in UNC to make a difference.”

Boyd was also heartened to hear about UNC Lineberger and Duke University’s collaboration with Susan G. Komen on metastatic breast cancer research. Any research gains made may come too late for Boyd herself, but she firmly believes it’s the only path to a cure. “I look at young girls who have metastatic breast cancer with new babies. I’ve had a wonderful life. I live in my dream place here in the mountains, but these young girls need a cure; they need to raise their children.”

Making an impact and leaving a legacy

A group of smiling people stand outside with snow-covered mountains behind them. They are wearing winter sport outdoor wear and holding skiis and snowboards.
Kathy Boyd, center, with her children (left to right) JD Boyd, James Boyd, Jenna Boyd and son in law, Stephen Woitt.

Boyd believes supporting the “metavivor” community is important, and in turn, has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support she’s received. Her husband and her five children have been behind her every step of the way, and her friends have reached out, as well. She spoke with a friend while planning and planting her garden for the spring, and she was saddened that she wouldn’t see her perennials mature and bloom.

“My friend said ‘skip the perennials and plant annuals.’ It was a wake-up call to live now, to do the things that are most important, now,” Boyd said.

That means spending time with friends, getting beautiful annuals in the ground for her to enjoy now and focusing her energy on her children and husband. But Boyd’s diagnosis is never far from her mind, and she is very conscious of what she may miss. Her parents had been very involved in her children’s lives, and she had always expected to be an attentive grandmother. “The thing I will miss most is helping to raise my grandchildren,” she said.

“We have to leave something behind, for part of being here on this earth is to leave something behind to make our community a better place,” she said. “We need to leave our world as good a place as you had it.”