A Sister’s Love, A Doctor’s Passion for Women’s Health


Living Life Like Her Sister

The memory of her sister Debbie, who fought ovarian cancer for eight years, is what gets Valena Wright, MD, out of bed before sunrise to train for the Boston Marathon.

Looking at pictures of Debbie, Dr. Wright smiled, remembering the happy times. “She lived her life to the very end,” she said. “She loved to be on the ocean. She would sail. Even up to a few months before her death, she would ski.”

Every morning when Valena laces up her running shoes to run through the Charlestown Navy Yard, it’s with a purpose: to help women like Debbie. “I run with her beside me and in her memory,” she said. “And that makes it worthwhile.”

Dr. Wright will run the Boston Marathon with Team Lahey in April, which is a proud official charity of the John Hancock Non-Profit Program. Her goal is to raise $12,000 to benefit Lahey Hospital & Medical Center’s Center for Professional Development and Simulation. It’s where surgeons learn new techniques and interventions, practicing on lifelike manikins and simulators before bringing those new skills to real patients in the operating room.

Devotion to women’s health

Women’s health is a cause close to Dr. Wright’s heart, but it’s not just because of her sister. As the director of gynecologic oncology at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, it’s her life’s work. But as her sister dealt with her disease, having that medical expertise was a double-edged sword.

“One of the things they teach you in medical school is to never take care of family members,” she explained. “It’s hard, because what we know as professionals are certain facts. We can be biased when it’s our close personal loved ones and families. So it was very hard knowing the prognosis and outcome. Ovarian cancer does not have a great survival rate.”

Armed with a passion for saving women’s lives, Dr. Wright works on innovative treatments for gynecologic cancers and trains young doctors to perform new surgical techniques.

“Sometimes I think learning surgery and performing surgery well is an analogy to becoming a good musician,” she said. “Because you first have to learn to play the scales before you’re able to move on and play songs. One of the projects we have in development right now is heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy. It’s just a different way to deliver the drugs commonly used to prolong the patient’s survival.”

Knowing this work will help others is all the reward Dr. Wright needs. “I’m excited to be able to bring some focus on women’s health and women’s cancer treatments.”

Sisters team up

While Dr. Wright fights women’s cancers inside the hospital, the three Wright sisters have also teamed up to raise awareness outside the hospital.

The sisters were musically trained as young girls, so they developed a love of music early in life. At a summer camp in Vermont, Dr. Wright told Debbie’s story to a room of musicians. With no music or knowledge of Debbie’s story beforehand, the band composed a song on the spot and called it “Threnody,” which means “a song of lament.”

The Wrights then created a video with subtitles that educate women about ovarian cancer and directs them to online resources. “Threnody” was the soundtrack. The final images in the video are pictures of Debbie when she was younger, to put a human face on a disease that affects so many women.

Between the video, her day job, and the Boston Marathon, Dr. Wright is working tirelessly to make the world a healthier place in her sister’s name. “When I cross the finish line, I’ll be thinking of my sister,” she said. “If she can beat me on cross-country skis after chemotherapy, I think I can make it across the finish line in her honor.”