It was a Thursday morning in April 2009, and Kaedy Kiely was finishing up on the air at 97.1 The River. After playing some favorite classic rock hits for her loyal listeners, she knew that it was time to fill them in on what was going on in her life. With a slightly shaky voice, the veteran radio show host revealed that she had been diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer and would be in surgery the next day to have a lumpectomy. “I told my producer, ‘I would rather they hear it from me,’” Kiely recalls. “I just wanted the listeners to know that I would be OK.” After her announcement, she left work and focused on what lay ahead for her, not realizing the impact she just had on the people who tune in to hear her every day.
However, when Kiely returned to work the next Monday, she quickly became conscious of it. Hundreds of phone calls and e-mails came flooding in from listeners who wanted to offer support and share their own stories of cancer and survival. “The outpouring was so overwhelming, especially from listeners who have been through it,” Kiely says. “I couldn’t believe that these people were so willing to put themselves out there for me. I was just overwhelmed with this feeling of being loved and cared for. This extremely touching and intimate thing was happening. And I tell people now that in terms of the breast cancer, 10 percent of what happened to me was really lousy, but the other 90 percent was an amazing gift.”
That incredible connection with rock music fans in Atlanta is what prompted Kiely to pray for one thing in particular when she received her breast cancer diagnosis: to be able to stay on the radio. “I didn’t feel sorry for myself when I found out. I never asked, ‘Why me?’ I asked, ‘Why not me?’ So many people go through this, and I have been so blessed in my life—I just knew that I would have to get through it,” she explains. “I prayed really hard that I wouldn’t get taken off the air. I just wanted to work.” And the reason is simple: the airwaves in the metro area have been Kiely’s home for more than two decades.
Born just north of Boston, Massachusetts, Kiely moved to Atlanta at the tender age of 10. She attended Emory University as an English major and was introduced to radio as a genre when she interned with the school’s Catholic Communications department and met Monica Kaufman (now WSB-TV’s Monica Pearson), who ultimately became her mentor.
“I thought I wanted to be in television, but Monica mentioned that there were very few women in radio in prime spots,” Kiely remembers. That intrigued the college student, who had a deep-seated love of rock music, thanks in large part to her four older brothers. She had inherited one of her brother’s record collections as a young teen and was bewitched by The Beatles, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and many other great acts. When she realized that she could translate her passion for great music into a career, she says, “I was not interested in anything else.”
After earning her degree, Kiely accepted an on-air position at KKBZ-FM in Ventura, California, where she learned everything about the business. After a few years, she was ready to come home to Atlanta and found herself at 96rock, a station with no female disc jockeys on the air. Always a trailblazer, Kiely carved out a niche for herself with a highly popular afternoon show and established a devoted fan base that simply loved what she was doing, including her live interviews with such luminaries as Paul McCartney and Robert Plant. “In the 80s and 90s, radio was a very magical genre,” Kiely says. “It was a theater of the mind. We had our fingers on the pulse of the listeners, and we were kind of let loose to play what we wanted to play and what they wanted to hear. Also, 96rock was the only rock station in Atlanta, so it was a really special time.”
While an ownership change prompted her to move to Z93 after 15 years with the same station, Kiely maintained her enthusiasm for the music she loves and the people who listen to it with her. And 7 years later, when Z93 changed formats and she found herself unemployed for the first time in her career, she found ways to keep the music and the radio genre alive in her life, working on a CD version of her much-loved RockRiddles, as well as behind the scenes at 790 The Zone. Her four-year break from being on the air ended 2 years ago when her friend, fellow radio personality Jordan Graye, told her about an opening at 97.1 The River. “I wasn’t pursuing any opportunities for getting back on the air, but they were looking for a morning person,” Kiely says. “Then, when I went in, I was blown away by how smart and professional these people were. And when I hit the mic, it was like riding a bike. It was so natural, and the listeners were so sweet. Many people said it was like hearing a friend again. And that was the best part to me—to be a part of their lives again and to represent the music for them. It’s just an honor.”
That’s why Kiely’s breast cancer diagnosis, which came after she found a lump only 6 months into her new job being back on the air, was such a blow not only to her, but also to her listeners. To the amazement of many, though, as Kiely moved through her cancer journey, which included chemotherapy and radiation, she only missed one day of work—the day after her lumpectomy. And today, at age 50, she is cancer-free and her prognosis remains excellent. Much of the credit, she believes, goes to Piedmont Hospital, where she received treatment, and its Cancer Wellness at Piedmont program, through which she found an entire community of breast cancer comrades to share her experience. From workout and cooking to yoga and visualization, Kiely discovered a whole new world of free classes that were designed specifically for her needs as she fought the cancer. “The women I met were just so inspiring to be around,” she says. “There was not one person I met who would not bend over backwards to help me. We got to know each other, and we bonded. It encouraged me and showed me that I needed to be open to it—just like I was open with the listeners. I had to share what I was going through. If I hadn’t, I would have missed out on one of the most beautiful things that has ever happened to me in my life.”
Being on the receiving end of that kind of warmth and caring has made Kiely want to do the same for other women—and men—who are going through their own breast cancer journeys. Interestingly, prior to her diagnosis, she had been looking for a cause to get behind and had become involved with Chastain Horse Park and its incredible therapeutic programs, which she continues to support today. But her personal experience opened the door to something else as well. “When I found out about the breast cancer, I realized why I was back on the air,” she says. “I have a voice, and I had an opportunity to get the word out that there is hope.” While she did not discuss her breast cancer often on the air, Kiely wrote a blog about her journey, which served as a way for her to connect with listeners in an entirely new way. “I thought, ‘If just one person sees this and it makes a difference in their health, then it makes all the difference to me,’” she adds. These days, she also participates in a wide array of breast cancer-related activities and educational efforts, including the BreasText program being offered by The Doris Shaheen Breast Health Center at Piedmont Hospital, 97.1 The River and Best Self Atlanta Magazine.
Kiely also strives to serve as an example to others who have received their own breast cancer diagnoses—and to people who are simply facing tough times in their lives. “You can never give up, no matter what the situation is,” she concludes. “I’ve been there. I’ve been out of a job as a middle-aged person, wondering what I would do next. I’ve had a cancer diagnosis. You just can’t give up. All of the twists and turns have made me a better person and made my life better. You have to be willing to ask for help when you need it because people will come out of the woodwork. Be open and willing to share your experience—it is so important. I see how far I’ve come, and I feel so blessed.”
And there’s no doubt that her much-loved listeners are thinking the same thing we are here at Best Self Atlanta. Rock on, Kaedy Kiely. Rock on.
Kaedy Kiely says…
“Don’t put off your mammogram. Be sure to have one every year. And if you find something that doesn’t feel right, have it checked out. I was 10 months from my last mammogram and found a lump by accident. It was an aggressive form of breast cancer, and I caught it early. Don’t wait.”