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Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Paqui Kelly leading off the field

By Matt Fortuna

In the week leading up to Notre Dame's Oct. 8 game against Air Force, Paqui Kelly had a much bigger task on her hands than simply preparing for the Falcons' triple-option offense.

She hosted a pair of golf outings — one in Grand Rapids, Mich., another two days later in South Bend, Ind. — and helped spread the message that may have helped save her life: be proactive.

The wife of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is a two-time breast cancer survivor, undergoing a double mastectomy in the spring of 2008. October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is of particular importance to the Kellys. Notre Dame's uniforms and accessories featured pink accents in its win over Air Force, and Brian Kelly wore pink ties to his midweek and postgame press conferences.

"We need to get the word out that it's not doomsday like it was 25 years ago," Paqui Kelly said.

The Kellys started what would in 2009 become known as the Kelly Cares Foundation, a non-profit focused on breast cancer education, prevention and research.

The groundwork was laid in 2007, when Brian Kelly was coaching at Cincinnati. But cancer soon returned to Paqui Kelly, putting the paperwork for what was originally the Kelly Family Foundation on the backburner.

"We just did two events a year, and it was very much smaller than what we're doing now," Paqui Kelly said. At Notre Dame, she added, "the platform's allowed us not to spend a whole lot of money on advertising, which can be very costly. So just the number of people we've been able to help has been pretty efficient."

In December 2002, a mammogram Paqui Kelly underwent on a doctor's recommendation revealed two cysts on her breast, which she was told to monitor for six months. She felt they were growing, returned in May and was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She waited to see if the cancer would return before choosing to undergo a double mastectomy, something two of her five sisters, Monie and Eli, had done between the first and second time she was diagnosed.

"Immensely," Paqui Kelly said when asked how much it helped to have her sisters to lean on.

She can also credit her light-hearted personality.

A mother of two boys and one girl, Paqui Kelly hosted a head-shaving party during her second battle with cancer, reasoning that her hair would eventually come out anyway.

"The two boys were like, 'Oh I get how funny this is,' and they were asking the neighbors' kids, 'C'mon, we're shaving Mom's head,' and tried to sell it,' " Paqui Kelly recalled with a laugh.

"I think that was a little more offbeat than most people do."

She said the first time the entire extended family saw her bald, at a buffet-style dinner, one of the kids had been grossed out by what appeared to be a piece of hair on one of the plates.

"It's not mine," Paqui Kelly replied, lightening the mood for everyone.

"I tell people I'm not making light of the seriousness of it, we just all handle things differently," she said. "Humor helps me through it and our family through it. Denial is one of those tools that doesn't work with cancer in any form."

Her husband has a humorous side, too, she said, but it comes out in different ways.

"His job doesn't allow for shenanigans, in terms of leading a team and an administrative staff in his type of position," Paqui Kelly said. "But he's quite able to be entertaining as well, just in his own little way. Sometimes it's more dry than a 'ba-dum' kind of deal."

Brian Kelly cannot help but turn serious when discussing the strength of his wife, who has now been cancer-free for four years.

Together, they have used their platform to spread awareness, hoping to, as Paqui Kelly puts it, be "the difference between a really long healing process or a story that doesn't end as well you hope."

"My best friend," Brian Kelly said of Paqui. "When you have those tough days you go and see her and it makes it a lot easier."