Greatrex carries weight of memory to fuel work as breast-cancer pioneer

Cherry Hill-based physician, Haddonfield resident to be lauded by alma mater.

Dr. Kathleen Greatrex, a Haddonfield resident who works out of Penn Medicine on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, will receive the Mother Camilla Award at the Immaculata Awards Gala at her alma mater of Immaculata University on Friday, Oct. 18. (Photo credit: Kathleen Greatrex/Special to the Sun)

On Friday, Oct. 18, Immaculata University will welcome back Kathleen Greatrex, a member of the class of 1980 and resident of Haddonfield who is based out of Penn Medicine’s complex on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, to receive the Mother Camilla Award at the Immaculata Awards Gala.

The award is named in honor of M. Camilla Maloney, one time Mother General of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and presented to those who demonstrate leadership and vision to sustain the future of the school through service — including volunteerism, counsel and philanthropic support — to carry on her mission. 

Greatrex’ impact can be traced to the mentorship of one sister in particular, biology professor Sister Jane Anne Molinaro, IHM, Ph.D., who gave her the confidence to venture into a rigorous, male-dominated field. 

“I met her in 1978. She made me feel like I could do anything and that I could accomplish what I wanted. Being a doctor was something I wanted, and she was so positive,” Greatrex said during an interview on Oct. 4.

“My family’s going to be there, and I invited all of Sister Jane Anne’s family as my guests, and the people who were there when she became a nun too, I invited all of them, because it’s really not about me; it’s about her. I’m there because of her.”

Greatrex is a township native who graduated from Cherry Hill High School West before heading to the other side of the river to continue her education. At the time, Immaculata was only known to the rest of the country for its pre-NCAA powerhouse basketball team, the “Mighty Macs,” which won three straight titles and appeared in five consecutive AIAW title games from 1971-76. 

However, the school’s faith-based instruction backed strong academics and positive  teaching of individuals to believe in oneself – something which served Greatrex’ goals perfectly. 

“As a woman, going into a field so dominated by men, how can you possibly do it? There were no constraints. I was a bio major, there were courses that geared you towards that career, and there were quite a few girls who graduated that got into medical school at Temple, right out of Immaculata. It had that kind of a reputation,” she revealed.

In time, Greatrex weaved her way through the necessary steps toward establishing herself: med school and residency at Temple, an internship at the University of Pennsylvania and then a fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center focusing on breast imaging. 

Now a leading expert in the field, Greatrex holds the official title of clinical assistant professor of radiology at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Having the conversation in one of the imaging rooms within the radiology department of its Cherry Hill campus brings home the impact technology holds on saving lives. 

“The fact that we use the technology is amazing – it’s a miracle. It’s generations that we save. One patient (or was it a friend of mine) sent me this beautiful card one time on Mother’s Day, and it said, ‘Just know how many mothers are able to celebrate today because of you.’ And you think about that, it brings tears to your eyes. I know through what I’m doing, daughters will be able to celebrate their mothers.”

In her second year of medical school, Greatrex lost her own mother, at age 56, to breast cancer. It has been a driving force, to say the least.

“My mother’s suffering is not in vain, to know that I can help diagnose this disease at a stage where it can be treated and cured. The whole purpose of my career and my life, I’ve given everything I’ve had to the practice of being a radiologist in this specialty,” she said. 

To ensure that purpose rests in the hands of future physicians and in honor of her late mentor, four years ago Greatrex created an endowed scholarship at Immaculata. It is awarded to a female student each year who decides to major in one of the sciences. 

“I started this scholarship for any girl who doesn’t have strong financial means but who has a zest for the sciences. If anyone wants to help young girls become scientists, nurses, physicians, researchers, I know that I would be grateful if you’d do it in (Molinaro’s) name,” she said. 

Given the weight and depth of her life’s work, it was a shock to find out Greatrex really wasn’t prepared to receive her impending recognition, as she related she had to read the letter sent by Immaculata’s president more than once to fully grasp its meaning.  

She said she’ll have butterflies on the night of the ceremony, but it’s just another event which will strengthen her faith and resolve to do her best to save lives. 

“Whatever your beliefs or your religion, you can’t do this job like this without knowing God is walking with you. I also think I bring empathy into it, because of what I lost. I not only lost my mother, but also her three sisters all to cancer. I bring them with me, and Sister Jane Anne, who died of oral cancer. In that regard, they give me the strength to keep me doing this every day.” 

For those who wish to donate to the endowment, Greatrex asks that checks be made payable to Immaculata University, 1145 King Road, Immaculata, Pa. 19345, Memo: Sister Jane Anne Molinaro Scholarship.