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Facing Cancer Together

by Laura Shipp

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Country music’s Charlie and Nan Kelley faced the toughest year of their lives when they were each diagnosed with cancer within months of each other.

For Nan Kelley, host of GAC’s Top 20 Country Countdown and Opry Live, and her husband Charlie Kelley, four-time Grammy nominated artist and producer, 2008 was the year their world should have fallen apart. Instead, it became the year that they both survived cancer and came through the ordeal with a strengthened bond and a new purpose in life.

Diagnosed with cancer within seven months of each other, Nan with Hodgkin lymphoma and Charlie with colon cancer, the couple endured surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, fatigue, hospital stays, and hair loss. Each playing the role of the patient. And each taking on the role of caregiver.

“We don’t want to see even a hangnail after that!” Nan says in an interview with Coping® magazine. “I think this is enough.”

It all began in April when Nan noticed an unusual lump in her neck. She went to the doctor to have it checked out and was diagnosed with stage II Hodgkin lymphoma. “The good news about Hodgkin’s, if there is any good news in cancer,” Nan says, “is that Hodgkin’s is highly curable. My doctor told me that while there is never a promise, this is one we know how to treat and beat. So I knew that if I could just get through the chemo treatments, I should be OK on the other side.”

“There will not be a more bonding moment in our marriage than when Charlie shaved my head.” - Nan

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However, getting through the chemo treatments was not exactly easy. During her four months of chemotherapy, Nan ended up in the emergency room three times and was hospitalized when one of the drugs in her chemotherapy regimen caused her lungs to become inflamed. “But there’s a reason that it’s chemo and not a cold,” she says. “It’s not fun and it’s not pretty and it’s painful, but it works if you can just endure it.”

Nan was able to endure the chemotherapy, as well as the radiation therapy that followed, with Charlie by her side. “I can tell you that there will not be a more bonding moment in our marriage than when he shaved my head,” she says. “Losing your hair is tough. It was tough on me. And people had said to me, ‘When it starts to fall out, you should just go ahead and shave it because it’s better than sitting there and watching it come out at random.’

“So Charlie and I went into the backyard, and he shaved my head. I was falling apart at the beginning. But he took me through all these wacky haircuts, and he made me laugh. He took a very painful situation and made it funny, complimenting me on my bald head and telling me how cute I was.”

“There’s a reason I’m still here,
and I’ve got to take advantage of it.” -
Charlie

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For Charlie, it was difficult being the caregiver and watching his wife struggle with the physical and emotional side effects of treatment. “There’s nothing you can do to make it go away,” he says. “When somebody is going through treatment, you just have to let them have their pain. You can’t try to make it better. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn until probably almost halfway through it that what she needed me to do was just listen and support her.”

By early fall, Nan had finished her chemotherapy and radiation treatments and was ready to move on with her new life as a cancer survivor. But cancer wasn’t finished with Charlie and Nan.

Just three weeks after Nan completed her last radiation treatment, Charlie went in for his annual physical. Because his mother had a history of polyps – a risk factor for colon cancer – he insisted on a colonoscopy even though he was only 40 years old. Most people don’t begin regular screenings until age 50. Doctors found and removed a highly aggressive cancerous polyp.

“We were stunned, and we were shocked that this was happening within seven months of each other, in the same year, the same disease,” Nan says. Charlie later had surgery to remove 10 inches of his colon. He believes that God may have had a hand in his early diagnosis. “I truly felt that there was something pushing me to get that colonoscopy. My doctor said that if I had waited for normal screening at age 50, my outcome could have been completely different,” he reveals. “Some kind of divine intervention made it all come at the right time. There’s a reason I’m still here, and I’ve got to take advantage of it.”

That’s why Charlie has teamed up with the Colon Cancer Alliance, launching the Blue Note Fund, a program designed to provide financial support for people with colon cancer who are in need. He also created the annual Stars Go Blue benefit concert, which features some of country music’s most talented songwriters, to raise money and support for the Fund.

For her part, Nan has joined the efforts of The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, supporting their Light the Night campaign. She heads up Country Faces Cancer, where country stars form walking teams with friends and fans to raise money for Light the Night.

“That has been an extreme positive of having cancer,” Charlie says of his work with the Colon Cancer Alliance. “I have always wanted to find a way to help people, and I just never figured out what that was. Cancer showed me the way to do that.”

“Charlie and I both have a goal to help people,” Nan adds. “We’re just trying to take a bad situation and bring about some good. If you keep all of this for yourself, it’s not doing anybody any good. You’re past it, and thank God you’re past it, but you’ve got to share your experiences.”

Charlie adds, “It was certainly a struggle. But now we can look at it and see that we’ve both made it through, and we both have a desire to help other people through it.”

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To learn more about Charlie and Nan and the work they are doing to support cancer survivors, visit www.charliekelley.com and www.nankelley.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2011.