“Fancy Nancy” finds strength in Riley kids as she confronts cancer




“It is because of the kids that I am able to face this the way I am. I have watched them and learned from them.”

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

It was just before her 60th birthday when Nancy Kehlenbrink felt the lump in her breast.

“A great birthday present,” she says ruefully.

And then she laughs.

She laughs a lot during a 30-minute conversation. And despite what you might think, it’s a joyful laugh.

The beloved Riley Children’s Health team member is facing cancer with the same kind of strength she has seen in countless Riley kids over the years.

She may not have chosen this path, but she has embraced it for all it is teaching her.

“I may have cancer, but cancer does not have me, and it never will.”

She delivers that line with such force you don’t question it.

The longtime Echo tech at Riley is not just putting on a brave face. She is feeling brave because she has walked alongside courageous little humans for decades.

“I have spent almost 32 years watching the most amazing people face the most dire of health circumstances,” she said. “I have learned so much by watching how they heal, how they fight and how they live.”

Those were the words she shared when she announced her diagnosis of ductal invasive breast cancer in late March. Since then, she has continued to bless those around her with uplifting messages.

That is her way. Parents and patients alike have developed a deep affection for the woman they call “Fancy Nancy” for her good cheer, attentive care and unwavering faith.

“I have an amazing God that has a plan for me, and I welcome it,” Kehlenbrink said. “I’ve been very peaceful about this. I feel like it’s a journey I’m supposed to experience.”

She has finished the second of six rounds of chemotherapy at IU Health Simon Cancer Center. Her hair is falling out, and her energy sags, but she finds something good in every day.

“Today, I felt like Fancy Nancy again, so I did things that make me happy.”

She fed the birds on the four-acre property she shares with her mother. She made scrambled eggs. She took a short walk, and she played a little ball with her dog, Pollyanna.

“She’s my best friend,” Kehlenbrink says as the golden retriever sidles up next to her. “She can’t understand why I can’t play ball as much, but she has not left my side.”

When she doesn’t feel well, Kehlenbrink takes the advice of her young patients and rests. Sometimes she watches a little “Bluey,” a familiar soundtrack at the hospital. “It makes me happy.”

She focuses on the simple things in life, a lesson she learned from the kids. She gets along so well with her patients, friends say, because she is a kid at heart.

She works when she can, but she fears those days are fading for the time being. Last week, her colleagues in cardiology, including cardiac sonographer team lead Jennifer Johnson, gathered to do some design work in her hair. One of them shaved the outline of a heart.

And that says it all.

Kehlenbrink’s heart is bigger than most, so it makes sense that her career is focused on taking pictures of the heart. An echocardiogram uses high-pitched sound waves to look at the heart and nearby blood vessels.

During those scans, she takes the time to connect with her patients and calm their parents.

“Nancy has a kind and gentle spirit that calms our patients who are a little apprehensive,” Johnson said. “She gives so much of herself to her patients and her co-workers.”

Always quick with a smile, a word of encouragement or a hug for others, she is receiving that back ten-fold now.

“The couple days I was there last week I got to see kids I needed to see,” she said. “They all had messages for me. They helped me feel like nothing could stop me.”

And it is because of those kids that she is able to face this challenge with grace.

“I have watched them and learned from them. I’ve coached them and been their cheerleader, not fully understanding what they were going through, but now I do,” she said.

“They have taught me about strength, courage, hope, faith, love, kindness and grace. I have paid attention. It’s now my turn to put all those gifts to use in my healing.”

One of her goals through this process is to find a way to let kids teach adults how to heal “because kids heal with their hearts and their souls and leave their heads out of it,” she said.

Adults have it backwards, she thinks.

“For years, I’ve watched parents agonize because they know everything – the doctors tell them everything. They don’t tell the kids everything and so they don’t agonize. You see them not feel good and then you see them feel good. They just do it better,” she said.

For that reason, she asked her own doctors not to tell her about the side effects she might experience or how each drug she must take will fight the cancer. She trusts them to do what is best, and she leaves room in her head and her heart for the good stuff.

“We all did it better as kids because we had not put that layer on top of us that starts muddying up how we view the world. So, I just took myself back and wiped off those top layers that I’ve been carrying around all these years, and I’m going to stay here. It really does work.”

The support she has received from her family, friends, patients, parents and co-workers has been overwhelming, she said.

“I truly feel like I am the most blessed person in the world. It’s almost embarrassing how wonderful people are.”

For a moment, Kehlenbrink reflects on another time in her life. A time when she was younger and full of dreams.

“I couldn’t understand when I was younger why I couldn’t have kids, but then I realized that God gave me all the children at Riley to be my kids. I love every single one of them,” she said.

“I couldn’t have planned this life any better. It’s beautiful.”

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org