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.
photos by cory morton
It started with an itch.
On Jan. 21, 2017, a Saturday night, right before she was turning in for bed, Kelly Frey reached up to scratch under her bra strap and felt a lump on her right breast, one that was not there a few weeks prior, and one that certainly was not there when she had a mammogram in August.
“I went, ‘I have a lump,’ and I started to feel. It was that easy,” she says. “I had never done breast self-exams before. I had never done anything like that before. Now I understand the importance of them.”
Ultimately, she knew she would never be able to keep that kind of secret from her husband until she was able to contact her doctor. Frey sat Luhn down on the edge of their bed and told him what she found.
For some reason, her gut told her that at 43 years old — and with no record of the disease in her family — she had breast cancer. “I don’t remember the whole conversation, but I remember saying to him, ‘I’ll call the OB-GYN first thing Monday morning, but I bet you by next week I’ll be having a biopsy,’” she says.
Less than two months later, her fears confirmed, the longtime WTAE-TV news anchor would take her private struggle public with an on-air announcement about her diagnosis, one that would spark hundreds of thousands of comments on social media calling the anchor an inspiration to others who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
It is for her brave and public stance that she is Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2017 Pittsburgher of the Year.
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.”
Family is of utmost importance to Frey, who shares Bennett, 8, and Marena, 6, with her husband, Jason Luhn. Their home on the West End has been renovated to accommodate Bennett’s special needs
Building a Platform
Michelle Wright, Frey’s longtime co-anchor and close friend, applauds Frey’s decision to be open with her battles. Weeks prior to her on-air announcement, Frey told Wright and co-worker Ashley Dougherty she had breast cancer as they were in the ABC affiliate station’s makeup room getting ready to go live. Wright, stunned by the news, recalls how tough that day was for all of them. Dougherty says Frey, who she describes as a caretaker and the person they all go to for advice, wound up comforting them.
“You’ve seen how people have really responded, and I think she’s been overwhelmed by being able to help so many people,” Wright says.
Luhn, a pilot with the 171st Air Refueling Wing — the Air National Guard Unit located in Coraopolis — didn’t bat an eye at his wife’s decision to go public with her battles. Anything different would have been unlike her.
“She doesn’t give second thought to her job when it comes to providing help for other people or just using her experience as a resource for other people,” he says. “Innate within her is a desire to help.”
It isn’t the first time Frey has been so open with her life. Close to a decade ago, Frey let the public know that she was carrying her first baby, but that the pregnancy was thought to be terminal. Doctors urged Frey and Luhn to end the pregnancy, but the couple ultimately decided Frey would carry the baby to term. Despite the predictions, Bennett, who has Dandy-Walker syndrome — a congenital brain malformation — and hydrocephalus, was born stronger than expected.
Those first few years with Bennett, who has major physical and cognitive developmental delays, were a roller coaster, with many trips to the emergency room as he suffered seizure after seizure. After Bennett’s birth, Frey went part time at the news station in order to devote more time to his care. She also has become an advocate for children with special needs and their parents.
David Lott, principal at Pittsburgh Pioneer Education Center in Brookline, where Bennett, now 8, is a student, says Frey brings her well-documented energy to the school, where she has been an active member of the Parent Teacher Organization and — whether it’s chaperoning a school dance or reading Dr. Seuss books to students — often volunteers her time.
Although she has had to take a step back from her involvement, Lott says one of Frey’s more recent causes has been advocating for a therapy pool for students at the school, which serves students with special needs.
“Any time you call Kelly and it’s for the kids, she’s been there,” Lott says. “I really can’t say enough. She is truly a fighter. When she gets involved, and she has a cause she wants to pursue, she’s a fighter.”
The uncertainty surrounding Bennett’s survival prepared Frey and Luhn to take the news about her cancer in stride. Luhn, who says he still feels raw when he recalls the time they believed their son would not live past birth, says he met the news about his wife’s cancer with a matter-of-fact attitude.
“Emotionally, what we went through with our son really kind of tops anything that you can really compare it to,” he says. “I wasn’t nonchalant about it. … It stinks. It’s horrible to think my wife has something that could take her away from me. … My approach was, ‘You’ve got cancer, let’s figure this out. How can I help?’”
Hair Enhancements of Pittsburgh outfitted Frey with a wig that looks remarkably like her own blonde hair. Frey has worn the wig on air throughout her treatment.
Luhn, who often travels overseas for work, received permission from his base to be removed from a scheduled deployment to the Middle East in order to be closer to his wife as she underwent treatment. Eager to lend an extra hand, Frey’s parents began making more frequent trips from their home in Delaware to Pittsburgh to stay with their daughter. That extra time with family is something Angela Frey and her husband, Pen, cherish.
“That has been the bright light and the blessing in all of this, spending more time with her and being around the kids,” she says.
As they did with Bennett, Frey and Luhn leaned on their faith for strength. Once her cancer was confirmed, Frey says she prayed for energy and stamina to sustain her through the treatment process.
“Going through what we did with Bennett, having that terminal diagnosis, that was hard, because I had to trust that God had a master plan — whether he lived or died, no matter what. That was a real faith builder,” Frey says. “I think after going through that, when I got the diagnosis of breast cancer, it was like, ‘OK, what do you have in store for me now? And man, I’m on TV, do you really expect me to go public with this now, too? Am I in this position because I’m supposed to be public with this? Is this too much for people? What am I supposed to do with this?’”
After taking viewers on her journey with Bennett, Frey was sensitive to how the public would react to her having cancer, worried she was oversharing. That was for naught. Those in the Pittsburgh area and beyond have professed overwhelming support for the news anchor. Frey has received thousands of well-wishes in person and via social media. When she has the time and energy, she tries to get back to every person who contacts her, especially those who are or who have loved ones battling cancer.
“I don’t ever want to be the public persona that people get tired of,” she says. “Like OK, she’s got a special-needs child and now she’s got breast cancer and this is her latest cause. I don’t ever want to do that. I don’t want to ever feel like that. I don’t ever want to be pushing what’s going on in my life off on other people. I try to tread very lightly with that, and hopefully never be … overbearing, maybe is the word.”
On social media, where she has a robust following, Frey strives to be honest and educational. Sometimes that also means being vulnerable.
A Facebook Live post where she documented shaving her head while sipping champagne after her hair began to fall out following chemo treatments got millions of views. Frey also turned the camera on herself as she got ready for work one day, allowing herself to be seen with no makeup, no eyelashes, no eyebrows and no wig.
The wig, which looks remarkably like Frey’s own hair, is something the news anchor has worn since her hair began to fall out. But she rarely wears the blond hairpiece outside of work, opting instead for a pink ballcap. Despite encouragement from viewers who told her they’d love to see her bald on the air, Frey says she never wanted her appearance to distract from the news.
“I wanted continuity and normalcy, so if you didn’t know I was going through breast cancer, you wouldn’t even know anything,” she says. “You weren’t looking at me as Kelly, the anchor with breast cancer. Or there’s Kelly, cancer patient. It’s just Kelly, and that’s what I wanted on the air, no matter what — and so I could feel as normal as possible too.”
A sense of normalcy is another reason Frey was determined to remain on the job, even as she has battled debilitating nausea, headaches and other side effects from chemo treatments. For her, work is the time to momentarily forget about her diagnosis, to be around other adults and to focus on the news. To date, she only has missed a handful of work days.
“Just getting up, getting dressed, no matter how bad I felt in the morning, getting a cup of coffee, getting that shower, putting my makeup on and going in to work, even on the worst days, always makes me feel better,” she says. “If I didn’t have that, I probably would have laid around in bed more. I probably might not have been as upbeat.”
Peggie Kunicki, WTAE assignment editor and a close friend who joined the station at the same time as Frey more than 17 years ago, says it’s rare to see the news anchor come into the newsroom without a smile on her face.
“Some days the pep’s not quite in her step, but you wouldn’t know that from watching her on TV at all,” Kunicki says. “She has always been genuine, kind and sweet. Everyone always asks me, ‘What’s Kelly really like? Does she treat others the way she treats people on TV?’ I tell them, ‘She’s even better.’”
Rolling with the Punches
Early on in her chemo treatment, Frey, expecting good news, got a big blow instead. The tumor, after three intense sessions, wasn’t shrinking. But Frey, in a detailed Facebook post, noted it wasn’t growing either.
“Even though you get this plan through cancer, even though just when you think it’s going great, then it’s not,” she says. “You just have to clear your mind of whatever you’re assuming and get ready to roll with the punches.”
Johnson notes the results were unusual.
“The vast majority of people who get appropriate systemic therapy respond,” he says. “In fact, it is so typical that it almost becomes an expectation. While everyone knows there are nonresponders, they are few and far between. It sets off a lot of alarm bells.”
Frey’s cancer team reviewed her charts and, after determining her triple negative diagnosis was more borderline than initially thought, adjusted her treatment plan. The tumor began to shrink, and Frey went on to have a lumpectomy in the fall of 2017.
Frey says the change in plans taught her an important lesson when it comes to cancer: assume nothing. Since her diagnosis, Frey, now 44, has been eating healthier (and by extension, so is her family), getting exercise when she can, and basically doing everything within her power to prevent the cancer from recurring.
Frey will continue to receive chemo every three weeks throughout the spring, but her hair, now silver and curly, has started to grow back. She recently dyed it blonde and had it arranged into a stylish pixie cut. When the time is right, she says she’ll make her debut on air without the wig.
She recently marked another milestone in her battle, her last radiation treatment. In another emotional Facebook Live post — Frey says she saves them for momentous occasions — she rang a golden bell located in Magee’s cancer wing that patients jingle to signify their final treatment. Frey undertook the task with tears — and with joy.
“For anyone who’s ever had to ring this bell because you’ve gone through radiation,” Frey says in the video before vigorously ringing the bell and laughing: “This. One. Is. For. You.”