“I am happier than I’ve ever been”

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06/02/2023

Pauleyweb1

This Riley nurse says facing down an aggressive form of breast cancer has helped her live life with more joy.

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

Kelly Pauley might not think of herself as a hero, but she definitely qualifies in the eyes of her 7-year-old daughter.

And in the hearts of her colleagues at Riley Children’s Health.

Pauley, a nurse on 7 West for nearly 15 years, has spent the past year and a half juggling her jobs as a nurse and a mother with a lifechanging diagnosis of Stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and aggressive type of cancer.

Diagnosed at IU Health Saxony Hospital right before Christmas in 2021, she spent the next year undergoing treatment at IU Health North Hospital, which included chemotherapy, radiation and targeted infusion therapy.

“Can I just give a shout out to everybody at the Schwarz Cancer Center (at IU North),” she said to express her gratitude for their care. “The ladies at the front desk are amazing, the infusion nurses are fantastic, and my medical team, Dr. Erin Newton and Dr. Folasade Imeokparia, are the absolute best.”

In May of last year, she had a mastectomy on her right breast, and in September, she will undergo surgery to remove her left breast and reconstruct both at IU Health University Hospital.

Pauley, 38, has an aunt who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35, and she lost her grandmother to the same disease later in life. So she knew to watch for changes in her own body.

When she discovered a lump in her right breast, she got a mammogram and biopsy, which came back negative, but not long afterward she began noticing changes in her breast. That’s when she returned for another mammogram and biopsy two days before Christmas 2021. And the results were clear. She began treatment within the week.

Throughout all of her treatment, with the exception of her recovery from her initial surgery, she has continued to work.

For her, it’s been another form of therapy, helping to distract from the battle she was facing by focusing on others.

“It wasn’t easy,” she said, “but I love my job.”

And she learned over time that if her job brings her joy, it makes sense to keep doing it.

It helps that she has wonderfully supportive colleagues, she said, who set up a meal train for her, organized a T-shirt fundraiser, hired someone to clean her house and offered daily words of encouragement.

Kelly Orr is the clinical manager for 7 West and reached out to share that Pauley had been named a Hometown Hero by a local HVAC company. The prize? A new heating and air-conditioning system for her Noblesville home, as well as celebratory meals at her home and on her unit at Riley.

It came just as the summer season kicked in, so Pauley and her daughter are thrilled to enjoy a cooler house. And it’s one less worry on her plate.

Despite dealing with a difficult diagnosis over the past year-plus, “she hasn’t let it break her spirit,” Orr said.

“She comes to work each day with a smile on her face and ready to take on whatever new challenge is brought her way. Kelly brings fresh ideas to our unit and is always willing to lend a hand to her peers.”

Becoming a Riley nurse wasn’t in Pauley’s plans when she went away to college in Arkansas 20 years ago, but then her little sister became ill and required frequent treatment at Riley.

“It was hard for me to leave behind my baby sister, but when I visited, the nurses at Riley were amazing,” she said.

At that point, she said, she didn’t know what she wanted to do – she was considering athletic training, occupational therapy or physical therapy, but her sister’s experience helped crystallize her vision.

Nursing became her career path, and she knew then, “Riley is the place for me.”

Today, Pauley is in a good place physically and mentally, she said. She is in remission but sees her physician every three months and continues physical therapy.

“I am happier than I’ve ever been, honestly. I used to be a big worrier, but now I let that go. Life is too short to worry about other stuff right now,” she said.

“I just love life a whole lot more.”

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

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