At just 21 years old, Kelly Leibold heads up the Pine Island Chamber of Commerce, promoting businesses and events in her hometown. But Kelly's job is hardly the most impressive achievement of her young life. That, we think it's fair to say, would instead be the incredible way she has handled a diagnosis of medulloblastoma.
Kelly's diagnosis came after months of dizziness and nausea last fall. Doctors initially suspected benign paroxysmal positional vertigo and recommended physical therapy. But the prescribed exercises didn't help, and by the end of November, Kelly's symptoms were so severe that she was vomiting almost every day. She'd also begun experiencing uncontrollable trembling in her right hand.
Kelly's mother and grandmother took her to the emergency department and pushed for answers. "I had a CT scan and it was a long time before anyone came to talk to me about it," Kelly tells us. "Finally, they came and said, 'We saw something on your CT and we're sending you to Mayo Clinic.'"
At Mayo, Kelly had an MRI exam, and by that evening, an initial diagnosis. "They told me I had a brain tumor, but they weren't sure if it was cancerous or benign," she says. Within a week, she would have surgery — and an answer. Biopsy results showed the tumor was cancerous, and Kelly would need proton beam radiation therapy and chemotherapy to treat it.
Though the lengthy radiation and chemo sessions — some lasting up to 7 hours — could be considered a full-time job themselves, Kelly continued to work. "Work gave me meaning and purpose," she says.
When she wasn't working, Kelly found time for fun as well — with some assistance from her "super accommodating" Mayo care team. Like when she "really wanted to go to a Panic! at the Disco concert, and they pushed the start of my chemo back so that I could go," she tells us. (Rock on!)
This spring, Kelly took on another role, serving as a speaker for local Relay for Life events. She begins her presentations by talking about her fears. "I share some of the weird things I'm afraid of, like butterflies and the wind," Kelly tells us. Her cancer diagnosis doesn't make that list. "I have never once been afraid of my diagnosis," Kelly says, a fact she attributes to her "amazing support system." Family, friends and the community she loves have all rallied behind Kelly, who (not surprisingly) once received the Miss Congeniality award from the Miss Pine Island pageant.
She's also received support from new friends, including those she's met through Brighter Tomorrows, a nonprofit organization that helps families affected by childhood cancer. "It's really comforting to be able to share your story with people who understand," Kelly says of the group. "We give each other encouragement and hope."
That's something she gives a lot of people, it seems. "I've been told I'm an inspiration," Kelly tells us. And while she understands the sentiment, she says she'd like to "hold up a metaphorical mirror and show everyone else that they're the ones who inspire me."
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