Breast cancer was a game changer in many ways for Gayle Kelly.
The 59-year-old wife, mother and patient care technician who now helps lead the breast cancer support group at Rockdale Medical Center not only beat the disease, but also discovered a new career path and purpose in the process. "I’ve just been blessed. God brought me through it, and I honestly believe he spared me to do the work that I do," she said.
On an ordinary Friday morning in February 1996, Kelly was in the shower when she noticed one of her nipples was inverted. Immediately she called her doctor’s office making an appointment for the following Monday. She suspected it was pretty serious by the manner and reaction of the mammogram technician. Confirming her suspicion, a biopsy revealed she had stage 3B inflammatory breast cancer.
Chemotherapy, a mastectomy, more chemotherapy and radiation followed. "I know prayers work because if they didn’t, I wouldn’t be here," she said. After the cancer was finally eradicated, a friend that helped ferry her to chemo treatments told her that she didn’t think Kelly would survive. "I was really sick, but I never dreamed I wouldn’t make it. I did whatever they told me to do. If they told me to stand on my head and gargle peanut butter, I would have tried my best to do that," she said.
Kelly’s daughter, who was just 14 at the time, was a tremendous help with everyday tasks and encouraging words, wise beyond her years. Her son was more reserved and "never let on that it bothered him." Years later, she found out from one of his former teachers what a difficult time it had actually been for him.
Towards the end of her treatments, she told her husband she was going back to school so she could help other patients. This was quite a transition for the secretary of a staffing firm. When she began at Rockdale Medical Center, Kelly requested the cancer patient floor. "I know what it’s like to be in a serious situation. I try to put myself in my patient’s place and give the best care I can," she said.
Kelly is also a co-facilitator of the breast cancer support group at RMC, something she wishes had existed when she was ill. At that time, the radiation center just had a general cancer support group. "Once you hear the ‘C’ word, your whole world feels like it’s falling apart. Whether you’re in stage one or four, it’s devastating to hear," she said.
Kelly can’t overemphasize the benefits of shared experiences and learning what to expect. "A lot of times people have this preconceived idea that a support group involves a lot of crying. And, yes, we do share tears, but we share a lot of laughter too," she said.
"When I share my story, I tell people I’m thankful for the cancer. If I hadn’t had cancer, I wouldn’t be working at the hospital. I‘m doing what I love to do. That makes a difference," Kelly said.