2017 Pittsburgher of the Year: Kelly Frey
No one would blame the veteran WTAE anchor if she took time off while undergoing intensive breast cancer treatment. Instead, she chose to use humor and grace to educate and inspire others, all while in the public eye.
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Three days after Frey discovered the lump, an ultrasound confirmed it was not a harmless cyst. Just as she predicted, a biopsy took place the following week at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.
On Feb. 2, Frey got the news she expected. Nevertheless, it sent her reeling.
Alone that day — Luhn, at Frey’s insistence, was at the pediatrician with their 6-year-old daughter, Marena, who had woken up with an ear infection — Frey still put on a smile, despite the shivers that had started to run up and down her body. Dr. Ronald Johnson, chief of surgery at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, walked in the room to give her the news.
Although she finished her last radiation treatment in November, Frey will continue to receive chemo through a surgically installed port well into the spring.
“She broke one of the Johnson rules on the first day I met her because she came in by herself,” recalls Johnson, who was unaware until his staff notified him that the down-to-earth patient he was meeting was a local television personality. “That’s a difficult day — to be there by yourself and try to take that all in.”
The surgical oncologist informed her she had stage one, grade three cancer — triple negative, invasive ductal carcinoma to be exact. It was the same kind of breast cancer ABC’s “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts, who reached out to Frey after her diagnosis, famously beat.
The lump in Frey’s breast was small, thanks to her catching it early, but it was aggressive. Johnson, who to Frey’s amusement brought out a dry erase board to detail her diagnosis, told her she was looking at 24 weeks of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor followed by a surgery of her choosing. Frey decided on a lumpectomy and radiation.
“I fully expected him to say you’re going in for surgery,” Frey says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. This was like Breast Cancer 101. It was like a punch in the gut and the wind got knocked out of me when he said you’re going to start with chemotherapy.”
At that point, knowing she was going to lose her hair and believing she would have to miss work, Frey made up her mind not to keep things a secret and instead tell viewers about her breast cancer — but not yet.
“I just had to digest it,” she says. “I needed time for myself and my family to rally, to take it in and figure it out, but I knew I was going to have to go public, for lack of a better term.”
On March 10, after quietly informing her morning co-anchors and some WTAE staffers of her diagnosis, Frey made the announcement on-air. Sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed the bandage on her collarbone, the result of a recent surgery to install a port in which she would intravenously receive chemo treatment.
The last several minutes of the morning newscast were devoted to her announcement, which almost immediately was followed by a stunningly candid Facebook post featuring Frey wearing a pair of pink boxing gloves and promising to put up a fight against cancer. That same day, she began her chemo treatment.
Despite her brave words and the natural positivity that has defined her since she was a little girl (Frey’s mom, Angela, describes her daughter, who grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, as a “happy little thing” with a love for animals — and for mowing the lawn), Frey admits she was nervous to announce her cancer on air.
“It was weighing on my shoulders,” she says. “I thought, just please let me get the words out. Please let it be educational, let it be informative and let it come out so that it can help other people.”
At that point, no one would have blamed Frey for taking time off the air to fight her battles in private. Instead, Frey has used her public platform to educate others about breast cancer, giving a voice to the ups and downs, the small and large indignities, that come with battling the disease.
“It goes a long way when someone is so transparent,” says Johnson. “That’s a pretty grandiose gesture at a time when most people just turn inward and focus on themselves.”