Journal of Hope Spring 2012: Charlie and Nan Kelley— Co-Survivors, Co-Voices in the Fight Against Cancer

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Because “co” refers to having a mutual or shared interest or to be in partnership, the cancer community now uses the term “co-survivor” to refer to someone who is the backbone of strength for the person facing cancer. Co-survivor took on a dual meaning for Nashville music industry husband and wife team Charlie and Nan Kelley when they were both separately diagnosed with cancer in the same year.

Nan remembers being at a fundraiser in April 2008 when she reached up and felt an unusual lump in her neck. Later that evening, she had Charlie take a look. He agreed that it didn’t look right and insisted she call the doctor the next day. That call prompted a same-day visit where her doctor considered a thyroid goiter, an infected lymph node, and a third possibility that he didn’t explain. An MRI the next week instantly revealed Nan had some form of lymphoma. She knew right away what that meant but remembers that initially Charlie didn’t. When her doctor spoke the word “cancer,” she saw the crushing blow in Charlie’s eyes.

“Seeing his devastation at that moment broke my heart,” says Nan. “But as we got out to our car, ironically enough, I’ll never forget the peace that came over me. I felt sure that everything was going to be okay and was better able to comfort Charlie because of that peace.”

Nan was diagnosed with B Cell Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was quickly immersed in the treatment strategy her oncologist laid out for her — a plan for four months of chemotherapy followed by radiation treatments. Charlie found himself as caretaker and learned the limitations of that role — he was there to care for Nan, to validate her emotions, to take care of the finances, to see the “raw stuff,” but soon saw he was unable to “fix it.” That was enormously hard for Charlie, yet one of his greatest gifts to Nan was encouraging her to share her cancer journey with the audience of Great American Country (GAC), where she has been hosting Grand Old Opry Live and Top 20 Country Countdown since 2003.

“I believed that if Nan opened up that conversation in such a public way, it would help break down the isolation that cancer brings, as well as support the countless viewers from home going through similar experiences. I said, ‘Nan, you’ve got to talk about it,’” says Charlie.

Nan claims that was one of the best decisions she ever made.

“The outpouring of love from viewers was incredible. I also felt that by being honest with my experience, others in a similar situation could feel my support of them. Talking about cancer raises awareness and also encourages a better understanding about screening and prevention,” says Nan. 

No one believed in early screening more than Charlie. He had been asking his doctor about early colonoscopies for years. In November 2008, three weeks after Nan completed treatment, Charlie had a colonoscopy at 40, well in advance of the recommendation for a first-time colonoscopy. The report back was a stunning blow — Charlie had colon cancer. The Kelleys, who had just endured six months of cancer treatment for Nan, were now facing treatment for Charlie. 

“I was absolutely incredulous,” says Nan, who remembers hearing the news after insisting that Charlie tell her results of the colonoscopy over the phone during a break in one of her shoots.

“To be facing cancer again together was just beyond anything we could have imagined,” claims Charlie.

Charlie had extensive surgery three weeks later. During his hospitalization, Charlie, an accomplished musician/producer, had one bright spot of news: He had received a Grammy nomination. This blend of the bitter with the sweet was a defining moment for him. 

“As a young boy, I always thought my love for the guitar could one day help me reach others in a philanthropic way, and a Grammy nomination during one of the toughest years of my life brought that idea full circle,” says Charlie.

While Charlie’s surgery meant a full six weeks and beyond of recovery, Nan was recovering too. For Nan, that made being the caregiver to Charlie that he was to her difficult. Yet together in 2009 they both began to seek avenues that enabled them to use their cancer journeys as a platform for helping others. As they have recovered from their stunning year with cancer, Charlie and Nan have responded with involvement in agencies that make a difference in the fight against cancer. Nan serves on the TN Board for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and hosts Country Faces Cancer, which supports Light the Night. Charlie serves on the board of the Colon Cancer Alliance (CCA) and, more specifically, the Blue Note Fund, which offers annual funding to a certain number of recipients who are facing colon cancer and in need of financial assistance.

“My work in the cancer community has become my legacy, and I couldn’t do that work without Nan’s support,” says Charlie.

Getting back on the road and flying frequently for his CCA responsibilities and for his music have been challenging for Charlie, in terms of both energy and the impact travel has on diet and digestion. Pursuing answers surrounding those issues is what led Charlie to PearlPoint Cancer Support for consultation with a registered dietitian, who recommended various ways to track his diet to determine the best solutions for feeling at his best. Nan also tapped into advice for nutrition for a healthy survivorship.

Both Nan and Charlie say they couldn’t do their work without the other, and they are confident that sharing their messages about cancer is their life work. They both believe it is important to help now, today, in order to get to tomorrow. They both believe they have the responsibility and the platform to make a difference.

“Cancer brings unexpected gifts,” says Nan. “I would do it all over again to receive these gifts.” 

“It’s really helpful to know there’s a place you can reach out to for help after cancer as well as during, and everyone we’ve met at PearlPoint has been so kind. We couldn’t have asked for better people to help us on this journey.”