Paqui Kelly shares her breast cancer journey
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Notre Dame football team and teams around the country will be wearing pink to bring national attention to the disease. Something as simple as a pink wristband has a deeper meaning for Coach Brian Kelly and his wife, Paqui.
"One of the hardest things I had to do when I was sick, was to go into work and tell them I couldn't go to work anymore. Because I loved what I did," Paqui said.
For 12 years, Paqui taught chemistry and was a volleyball and basketball coach at Reeths Puffer High School in Muskegon, Michigan.
One diagnosis changed her life forever.
At 37 years old, the mother of 3 went in for her annual checkup.
"Brian was waiting on me to go grocery shopping and I said 'Honey, I don't think I'm doing very well. I ended up being there for an ultrasound and they found cyst," Paqui said.
A lumpectomy revealed Paqui had stage one breast cancer.
As the wife of football coach Brian Kelly, Paqui was used to X's and O's. Together they came up with a game plan to beat cancer.
"It's not like a game of Life, it's like here's the plan and it's how are we going to tackle this? Nobody gets a mammogram hoping to start their new strategy of how they're going to start their life as a new cancer patient," Paqui said.
"I think once the initial shock of the news hits you, it's important to sit down and put together a plan and I think that's what we did right from the very beginning," Brian said.
Part of that plan was trying to keep life as normal as possible. That meant forcing Brian to keep coaching football.
"I just made him keep working because it made me feel better. So that was normal and I needed it. I just need you through surgeries and he came to every one," Paqui said.
"I'm coaching and she's going through chemo and I can't be there for it. Obviously, she's going through the tough time, but you feel distant in the sense that you can't be part of that and you have to rely on others to be part of a very, very personal part of your life," Brian said.
Not once but twice the Kellys would have to come up with a game plan.
After beating it the first time, 3 years later Paqui learned that she had a different, more aggressive form of breast cancer.
"I didn't have the same cancer twice. I had one that was not hormone positive and the second time it was. So it's not really considered a reoccurrence, it's a second breast cancer," Paqui said.
While the Kellys were fighting back, the battle was taking its toll.
When her hair began falling out, she took back control and let Patrick, Grace and Kenzel be a part of it.
"That was my empowerment, My feeling was if my hair is coming out anyway, I'm going to shave it off. Sometimes you just have to grab those as you go through these stages that aren't very fun, but then you know that stage is over. Whether it's a treatment that's radiation, chemo or the surgery itself," Paqui said.
No matter how tough things got, they always found ways to smile.
"I think you have to laugh together and you have to laugh at yourself a little bit, I could come in with some humor and I did the silly things to make her laugh and it made it easier," Brian said.
"He was sweet, I'm bald as a cue ball and he went out to get some earrings to try to bring the attraction, something to pull away. He was all excited. He bought me a couple pair. He said 'Are you going to put them on?' I said, 'Sure, I'll put it on.' We were laughing, 'Ok, I look like Mr. Clean. Is what I look like,'" Paqui said.
While Paqui never returned to teaching she has embraced her new career.
Through the Kelly Cares Foundation the two have built the Paqui and Brian Kelly Comprehensive Breast Center at St Joseph Medical.
They've raised money for breast cancer research, spearheaded initiatives to increase awareness and to encourage early testing.
"I love what I do now. And my goal is make sure that one person goes and gets their mammogram that wouldn't have, then I'm doing what I'm supposed to do," Paqui said.
The journey of cancer involves tears, laughter and hope.
"I am currently 10 years out from my second diagnosis. And next year, I'll be 15 out from my first diagnosis. So I'm looking forward to that and looking to another 10 and 15 after that. Looking for 20 and 25, 30 and 35," Paqui said.
"She loves life. So, she's not going to be shorted, knowing how fragile life is. She just attacks every day and so I think when you're given the wake up call, that you may not be here, you change your perspective on life and you get after it every day," Brian said.
Paqui is one of six girls. Three of the six sisters have the BRCA1 breast cancer gene.
She cannot stress enough the importance of screening, early detection and genetic testing.