In a hospice room, a graduation well-earned

By Globe Columnist 

In and around Natick, they still talk about Cheryl Chagnon as a life force.

When the doctors told Cheryl Chagnon she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, her response said all you needed to know about her.


“I’m going to fight it,” she said. “And I’m going to beat it.”

And fight it she did. She went through stem-cell transplants. She did chemo. She did everything she could, and then some.

She was a school crossing guard in Natick and when she lost her hair she showed up at work and reassured the kids, telling them not to worry about her, because hair was like grass: it always grows back.

Along the way, Cheryl Chagnon raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research. Every summer, a bunch of Natick cops drove down to Falmouth to run the road race for Cheryl’s team. When Cheryl was too sick to run herself, she went to the finish line wearing a surgical mask and gloves.

Her daughter Tara was especially proud that her mother signed up for clinical tests that wouldn’t help her but might help someone else.


“She always thought of others first,” Tara said.

Tara was a fighter like her mother. She was born nine weeks premature.

“The doctors were worried,” her father, Mike Chagnon, was saying. “But Tara always surprised people. She never gave up at anything she did.”

Cheryl Chagnon fought her cancer for 16 years before she died in 2013. She was 53.

Tara Chagnon channeled her grief into her schooling. She had received her undergraduate degree in criminal justice from Castleton University in Vermont, but needed a master’s to do the sort of work to which she aspired. She enrolled at Suffolk University, seeking master’s degrees in both criminal justice and mental health counseling.

“Tara wanted to work with at-risk adolescents in the criminal justice system,” said David Shumaker, an associate professor in mental health counseling who served as her adviser. “She had the skill set. She had the life experience, the resilience in her own life, and kids responded to her.”


Two years ago, while she was going to school, Tara was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She was 29.

“I’m coming back,” she said, sounding like her mom. “I’m beating this.”

She had radical surgery and intensive chemo. Then radiation. She went back to school, riding the train from Framingham into Boston to class, fighting off the exhaustion, the sick feeling in her stomach. She was in the final stretch. Besides going to school, she was working one job, and interning at another.

“I can handle it,” she told her father, and he believed her.

Then, in January, they found the tumor.

“It was in her brain,” her father said.

The prognosis was bleak.

“We were sitting there, talking, and her biggest concern was that she had worked so hard, so very hard, to get her master’s and she wasn’t going to be able to finish that,” Mike Chagnon said.

“I’m not finished,” Tara Chagnon told her father. “I’ve got things I’ve got to finish.”

A couple of weeks ago, Tara had trouble walking. She fell.

“There was cancer in her spine,” her father said. “They gave us a couple of choices, and none of them were any good.”

They relieved the pressure on her brain and made her as comfortable as possible.

The doctors told Mike Chagnon that Tara might have a couple of months, but that it was possible she could die any day. Last week, Mike Chagnon called Suffolk University and explained the situation. Cliff Scott, whose daughter is married to Tara’s uncle, is the president of New England College of Optometry, and he made a direct appeal to Suffolk president Margaret McKenna.

As a college president, Scott knew accreditation rules forbid awarding ad hoc degrees.

“But there may be a creative way to do something for her,” Scott wrote, “sort of an academic Make-a-Wish.”

Within 20 minutes of an e-mail being distributed to the university’s board, which had to approve the degrees, 90 percent of board members had responded in the affirmative.

On Thursday afternoon, about 30 people crowded into and spilled outside of Tara’s room at the Miriam Boyd Parlin Hospice in Wayland. Most were family, but there were the doctors and nurses and social workers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who took care of Tara. One of the nurses, Amy Pollara, had traveled to a medical conference in New Orleans with a colleague, Lisa Sowydra, to talk to doctors and nurses about Tara’s unusual condition.

Tara’s grandparents, Mickey and Kay Hand, who had been at the side of their daughter for a 16-year war against cancer, were now at the side of their granddaughter.

Heather Pierce, the friend whom Tara considers a sister, stood there, too.

Into that sea of humanity waded a bunch of Suffolk deans, weighed down with the bulky robes and hoods and hats of academia, pomp amid tragic circumstance.

Marisa Kelly, the provost at Suffolk, and Maria Toyoda, the dean of the college of arts and sciences, talked of Tara’s grit, her unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Shumaker put the academic hood on Tara. And then they awarded Tara an honorary master of science in criminal justice and an honorary master of science in mental health counseling.

Tara smiled at everyone, and thanked them for coming. She told her dad that graduation has its privileges.

“I don’t have to take the train to school anymore,” Tara Chagnon said.

The two diplomas were in frames and they hung them on the wall in Tara’s room. It is unclear how many days Tara has left, but it might not be many. Those framed diplomas are the first things she sees every morning and the last things she sees when she closes her eyes at night.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist He can be reached at
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