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Wilmot Stories

Kelly Donley

Glioblastoma

Anyone who’s dealt with a cancer diagnosis will likely tell you, it isn’t just a physical challenge. Mental and emotional aspects come into play, too. For Kelly Donley, serving in the military helped him become stronger both physically and mentally – and it’s helped him since he was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2018.

Kelly spent about 20 years serving the United States Army. Specifically, he worked as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant. He began his career with four years in the Rangers, then after two years of training, he served as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces for 14 years. He spent eight-and-a-half years at Fort Campbell in Kentucky as part of the Fifth Special Forces Group, then five years at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

About a year after retiring, he started having seizures, which led to the diagnosis of glioblastoma in June 2018. He had surgery and then radiation therapy.

Through it all, he has stayed active – which he credits in part to his military career.

“Because, being what I did for so long, I’ve still been working out like a mad man and eating right,” he says.

While he can’t lift weights anymore, he rides about 20 to 25 miles per day on his bike, either outside when the weather is nice or on a stationary bike in his home 20 miles east of Watertown, New York.

After his diagnosis, while in a remission period, Kelly and his wife, Becky, welcomed a second son, Erik.

“He’s our little angel,” Kelly says.

In February 2019, Kelly’s cancer returned. He had surgery again but in April 2019, decided to come to Wilmot Cancer Institute for a second opinion. That’s where he met Nimish Mohile, M.D., a neuro-oncologist, and Andrea Wasilewski, M.D., a neuro-oncology fellow at the time. Now that Wasilewski has completed her fellowship, she’s become Kelly’s official full-time doctor.

“She’s the best doctor I’ve ever had,” he said of Wasilewski. “She’s just awesome.” 

At Wilmot, Kelly enrolled on a clinical trial that aims to determine whether an intravenous therapy called bevacizumab in combination with a vaccine (DSP-7888) will improve outcomes for patients. The vaccine in the trial attacks Wilms Tumor 1 gene, which researchers think is an oncogene highly expressed in glioblastoma. The phase 2 trial is only available at 44 locations nationwide; the University of Rochester Medical Center is one of those 44, and is only one of two in upstate New York to offer the trial.

Randomized to the arm to receive the bevacizumab alone, Kelly comes to Wilmot every two weeks for his infusion, with Becky and baby Erik in tow. Thankfully, the treatment Kelly receives is helping. His cancer is stable and he continues to feel good.

The ups and downs of the last few years haven’t been easy for Kelly and his family, but he’s thankful for the strength – particularly the mental aspect – his military experience helped him develop.

“I can take stress and just push it away,” he says.

"I can take stress and just push it away."