Sept. 19, 2013
By Denise Skwarcan, Irish Eyes
Paqui is a Spanish nickname meaning `happy’ and, appropriately, the one given to Francisca Kelly, wife of Irish head football coach Brian. Paqui Kelly is a burst of energy, wearing pink running shoes among other pink items, during an hour-long interview. She frequently laughs while she talks about her blessings and the attitude in which she’s used to deal with all the things life has thrown at her.
“I think most people will tell you that I’m pretty positive,” Paqui says. “It’s not that the glass is half full…it’s almost overflowing from my standpoint.”
And while the peaks have far outweighed the valleys, Paqui – along with Brian and kids Patrick, Grace and Kenzel – has endured some rough terrain in the low moments, like two bouts with breast cancer and a double mastectomy. But it also paved the way for the Kelly Cares Foundation (KellyCaresFoundation.org), which was established by the Kelly family five years ago with an emphasis on three main pillars: health, education and community.
“Nobody signs up for (breast cancer), and certainly nobody signs up for it twice,” Paqui notes. “But it was given to me, and the foundation was a way to move forward.”
Brian Kelly was an assistant coach at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich., when he met Paqui who worked as a counselor in the school’s financial aid office. Their paths crossed on occasion, and eventually fate took over. By the time they were married in July of 1994, Brian had been the head coach at Grand Valley for three years and would lead the Lakers to the NCAA Division II national championship in 2002. It was in December of that same year that Paqui’s ordeal with breast cancer began.
At the age of 37, and with no known family history of the disease, Paqui’s doctor recommended a mammogram during a routine exam. The test detected two cysts, which she was told to monitor for six months. But Paqui returned in May when she felt the cysts were growing, and this time she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Between June of 2003 and December of that same year, Paqui underwent two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation…while Brian and Grand Valley State won another national title.
“Brian’s team was coming off a national championship (in ’02) and it was not about me…it was about his football team,” Paqui recalls. “So it was kind of like I wasn’t losing my hair and nobody really asked questions. The media was pretty respectful…they knew something was up but they didn’t ask. It wasn’t until much later that we went public with it, and we just kind of made it like it was a secondary deal.”
By now, Brian’s coaching career was on the upswing, taking jobs at Central Michigan (2004-06) and then Cincinnati (2007-09). Paqui continued to receive a clean bill of health, but in 2005 one of Paqui’s five sisters, Monie, also was diagnosed with breast cancer. Some research, along with genetic testing revealed that Paqui’s family had not been as cancer-free as they had once thought.
“We found that my maternal grandmother was one of 13 and she got sick when (my dad was nine),” Paqui explains. “Back then what do you tell a nine-year-old boy? All he knew was that she had woman problems. I mean, people were more worried about the depression and a world war than cancer. So we kind of traced it back to that. It was just a 60-year miss.”
That information, along with the fact that Paqui, Monie and Eli had tested positive for the inherited cancer gene, gave them the foundation on which to make proactive decisions. While sisters Rosie, Gini and Mary tested negative, Monie elected to have a double mastectomy after her diagnosis as did Eli even though she was never diagnosed with cancer. And Paqui was ready for another possible fight.
“I went through surgery, chemo and radiation the first time to get me 95 percent cured, and then after the gene test there became a 95 percent chance that I would get cancer again within five years,” Paqui says. “The doctors told me I needed a double mastectomy and I looked at Brian and said, `I just did all that other stuff and (youngest son) Kenzel, who was two, had only ever seen me sick.’ I said, `Honey if I don’t hit the five-year marker I’m getting a double.”
Sure enough, about nine months shy of her first five-year anniversary, Paqui was once again diagnosed with breast cancer…and this time it was a more aggressive type. So the Kelly family’s hopes to launch a foundation were put on hold while Paqui endured another surgery and then reconstruction. Paqui felt it was a little easier the second time around because she knew what to expect and when she needed help. But, just like the first time, the Kellys tackled the situation with a game plan…and humor.
“I already felt like I had been a pretty good patient, and I had done my time” Paqui says. “And I said this is the way I look at it. You have some of these ladies that have bacon on the one side that’s been cooked because of radiation and bacon on the other side that hasn’t been cooked. And you’re the doctor that’s going to do the reconstruction, and you don’t know what you’re going to find until you get in there. I said, `I’m not coming back so if you’re not sure bring all your tools.’
“And I joked with my one sister because, well, we’re sisters. She had the TRAM flap (a tissue flap procedure that uses muscle, fat and skin from the abdomen to create a new breast) which I called the tummy tuck. The nurse said, `That’s not what we call it but I don’t think you’re a candidate, and I asked her what she meant. She said, `There’s not enough of you to do that.’ First I said woot woot, then I called my sister and told her and then I went to lunch. That was the way I looked at it!”
As the 2013 football season approached, many things had transpired since Paqui’s reconstructive surgery in ’08. Brian had become the head coach at Notre Dame, and led them to the national championship game after just three seasons. Her five-year cancer-free anniversary from the second diagnosis had come and gone. And the Kelly Cares Foundation was flourishing with Paqui now working with it full-time. Her vision for the foundation’s future is still a work in progress, but she knows what she doesn’t want it to be.
“We’re still very young and can do a lot more things,” Paqui remarks. “People will ask how big do you want this to be? And selfishly I don’t want it to be any bigger than knowing who I’ve given the money to and making sure we’re having a positive impact. I don’t want to become the United Way. You almost have to say we’re trying to raise money for this and you’re either on board or you’re not and that’s because we knew if we isolated exactly what we were raising money for there would be people we couldn’t help and that’s what we didn’t want so we left it open.”
Events such as golf outings and corporate dinners have been at the heart of their fundraising efforts in addition to Football 101, a clinic run by the Irish coaching staff designed to teach participants the basics of football. All proceeds go towards breast cancer prevention, awareness and early detection programs, and it is an event which Paqui particularly enjoys.
“There was a group of friend’s this year whose sister just passed away, and those days are a little harder…survivor’s guilt I guess,” Paqui notes in a rare quiet moment during which she tears up. “We have a lot of people who are celebrating being survivors or doing it in memory of someone (who passed away). It’s just developed into this really cool event.
“We went from 40 participants six or seven years ago to capping it at 600, and we’ve had 600 participants the last three years. So, over time, some events can get old and we may do an entire flip one year and then come back. We feel like we have a good groove going, however, and we still have people out there who haven’t done (Football 101) at all.”
And through it all Paqui has learned a thing or two about herself, although the Kellys have never strayed very far from who they’ve always been.
“I think if you asked me what I’ve gotten out of this personally it’s that I was never empathetic,” Paqui says. “I was always like, `C’mon, tape an aspirin to it.’ I’ve always been that person, and I realized everyone’s not like me. So before I do my little coaching deal I try to ask more questions and get a better feel for people. There’s always more than one way to spin a lesson. There’s always more than one way to spin a life lesson too.
“But Brian and I…we’re just not knee-jerk people, and I think that helps us in a lot of ways. I think he’s very appreciative and, like me, we count our blessings. And I think if you focus on what’s positive in your life, you have a lot less time to be negative. That’s the way we address life.”