Georgia Cystic Fibrosis survivor celebrates turning 50, hopes for lung transplant

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When Nicole Kelly looks back on her life, she gets emotional.  Because she’s still here.

"I've been hospitalized, honestly about 150 times,” the Grayson single mother says.

She’s a survivor of a half century with Cystic Fibrosis.

"But looking back, when people ask me, the tears come,” Kelly says. “Because I always have to fight for the right to breathe, that people take for granted."

Kelly's doctor Seth Walker knows she takes nothing for granted.  

The Director of the Emory Adult Cystic Fibrosis Program says CF is tough. 

It's a progressive, genetic disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs, pancreas and other organs, making it harder and harder just to breathe.

"This is going to be patients who have recurrent sinus infections, recurrent lung infections,” Dr. Walker says.  “Their cough is there all the time, not just when they're sick."

CF affects each person differently. 

But the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation says the median projected survival age for people with CF today is 40.

"My parents were told, when I was diagnosed, that I wouldn't reach the age of 10,” says Kelly. “There was a 50/50 chance."

Yet, beating the odds comes with a price.

Kelly is now on oxygen 24/7, and requires breathing treatments, and regular checkups.

Three times a day, her 20-year old daughter Kayla, pounds on her back and chest for a half hour to an hour, working to break up the mucus in her lungs.

Kayla’s been doing this since she was just 8.

Yet, somehow, Kelly finds time to get to the gym twice a week, to build up her strength.

"Even though I'm going through all of this, I'm a single mom,” she says. “And I run a household like normal people, and I do the same thing everybody else does every day."

But, three years ago, Kelly had a major setback.

"I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, August 22,” she remembers.  “That was the first time I was really scared for my life.”

Kelly's cancer was caught early, at stage 0, but she worried it would delay her dream of undergoing a lung transplant. 

And, when she first told Dr. Walker and his team,  he was concerned.

"All we knew was ‘cancer’,” says Walker.  “So we said, we have to wait 5 years to make sure you're cancer-free."

But, when Emory doctors looked closer at Kelly’s pathology reports, they realized her risk for a cancer recurrence was very low.

"It hadn't spread through the breast tissue,” Dr. Walker says.  “And, in that situation, there is a much better prognosis."

So, she can be evaluated for a lung transplant. 

And earlier this summer, the woman who wasn't expected to make it to 10, turned 50.

"I didn't think that I would live to see fifty,” Kelly says.  “So I was ecstatic."

Her hope is to go into her transplant as strong as possible, to live to see Kayla graduate from college.

Nicole Kelly says her experience has taught her to appreciate each day for the gift it is.

"And I just want to share it with the world,” she says.  “You can do it.  Just trust yourself and believe in yourself and God."