When it began, Kelli Buckley was sure her shortage of breath was a byproduct of her 17-year smoking habit.
What began as a precautionary doctor’s appointment in May 2015 revealed she had papillary thyroid carcinoma, the most common form of well-differentiated thyroid cancer.
Buckley became concerned after experiencing shortness of breath and a rapid pulse, and made an appointment with her doctor.
“At the end of the appointment he looks at me and says, ‘Why is your neck swollen?’ I told him I didn’t notice that it was,” Buckley said.
Story continues below gallery
An ultrasound was performed on Buckley’s neck, which showed she had cancer. Hearing the dreaded ‘C’ word and having to break the news to loved ones was one of the more difficult things Buckley has ever had to do.
“Hearing that word, my first thought was, ‘Oh, my land. I have a 5-year-old daughter. I have a husband. What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to them?’” Buckley said.
She still remembers calling her husband, her mom and her dad and saying three simple words: I have cancer.
“I never thought those words would come out of my mouth. Even though I didn’t have a deadly cancer, just saying those words was amazing,” she said.
Buckley, who makes balancing family, friends and a demanding career appear easy, found herself stopped her in her tracks by the news.
“I’m in my 30s. This shouldn’t be happening to me. Those were my first thoughts,” Buckley said. “When I found out it actually was cancer, it was just, ‘I have cancer’. It was terrifying. But then my doctor told me, ‘This is the best worst news you’re ever going to receive’.”
Papillary thyroid cancer is most common in women between the ages of 20 and 55. Life expectancy is often related to the age of the person diagnosed, and the prognosis is better for people younger than 45.
“My husband was my rock through it, showing how much he cared for me. He stayed all night with me in the hospital. Slept in a chair right by me.”
Amanda Woodward, a close friend since she and Buckley were 5-year-olds growing up in rural Shelby County, remembers when Buckley told her she had cancer.
“You start thinking, ‘Wow, we’re only 38 years old and she has a small child. I’ve known Kelli a long time, and she was crying. And Kelli is not a crier,” Woodward said.
But she also knew Buckley would fight her cancer, regardless of which type it was or how advanced it had become.
“Most people who know Kelli know about her will to succeed,” Woodward said. “She’s a hard worker and is not afraid to go against the world no matter what. There’s no telling Kelli, ‘No you can’t.’
“She’s a strong cookie, no question.”
Following her diagnosis, Buckley underwent surgery on a Wednesday at Johnson Memorial Hospital to have her thyroid removed. She spent one night there, took Thursday and Friday off of work and was back at her job as an account executive for A.S.K. Services — a company based in Canton, Michigan, which sells public property records — the following Monday. She now has to take one pill of Levothyroxine every day for the rest of her life, which serves as a replacement for a hormone normally produced by the thyroid gland to regulate the body’s energy and metabolism.
“It’s terrible to hear that you have cancer. But it was papillary thyroid cancer, which is very treatable and very controllable,” Buckley said. “It typically doesn’t come back. It doesn’t typically spread. I should be good for the rest of my life.”
Nonetheless, the experience itself led Buckley to make life changes. She immediately quit smoking, and attempted to live a healthier lifestyle by watching what she eats and exercising more frequently. And she appreciates what she may have taken for granted in the past.
“I wasn’t on my death bed. But it was still a big eye-opener. I don’t nit-pick about small things. I don’t sweat the small stuff,” she said. “My husband was my rock through it, showing how much he cared for me. He stayed all night with me in the hospital. Slept in a chair right by me.”
Kelli and Kenny celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary on Sept. 15.
Their daughter Mia is now 6.
“I was very lucky,” Buckley said. “It could have been a lot worse, so I’m very thankful for that.”
THE BUCKLEY FILE
Name: Kelli Buckley
Date diagnosed: May 2015
Type of cancer: Papillary thyroid cancer
Treatment: Had thyroid removed June 2015. One pill of Levothyroxine daily for the rest of her life.
What cancer taught me
Life can change very quickly. Enjoy every second of it. I live my life to the fullest. I love every aspect of it.
How cancer changed me
I made some choices to improve my lifestyle. Learned to not let small things get to me as bad. I learned that I want to be the person to forgive people and not hold grudges, because like I said, things can change very fast in life.
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer
There are so many factors that I am just not sure what I would say. It really depends on the situation and person.