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“Doing Hard Things” Community Bands Together to Drive Kelli McLaughlin’s Legacy Forward

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Life is hard. Now imagine receiving a terminal brain cancer diagnosis.

For Kelli McLaughlin, this became her reality on October 4, 2021, after waking up from surgery.

The daily challenges of being a mother of four, wife, and business owner were suddenly overcome by urgent appointments, preparing for treatment, and grieving this devastating news. 

But Kelli chose to “embrace the suck.” She adopted the mantra “We Can Do Hard Things,” inspired by the Glennon Doyle book Untamed, which encourages us to drop facades and talk openly about our obstacles to help make life a little easier. Reading this book shortly before her glioblastoma diagnosis helped Kelli prepare for the biggest fight of her life. 

“We couldn’t just sit here and say, ‘Everything’s great, we’re going to beat this,’ and then go run and hide,’” said Kelli’s husband, Ryan.

Kelli endured a craniotomy followed by months of chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy. She candidly shared her journey with loved ones and friends on social media… the highs, the lows, and the uncertainties of the disease.

Through it all, Kelli found silver linings on even the hardest days and appreciated spending quality time with her family, until her peaceful passing on April 21, 2023. 

“Kelli felt the only way she could impact people was being open and honest about what this diagnosis means for her and our family, and what that journey really looks like,” Ryan said.

That includes the losses—not just the person, but everything in between. For Kelli, that meant losing the ability to do the things she loved, like picking up and holding her five-year-old daughter, playing piano after teaching it for 22 years, and being able to communicate with loved ones.

“All these things were taken away. It was almost more difficult before than it is now,” Ryan said. “With this disease, you don’t realize that you lose so much more throughout the process and the journey.”

Despite facing debilitating side effects, Kelli remained steadfast in using her experience as a way to help others. In April 2022, Kelli hosted the first Kelli’s Kegs N’ Eggs 5K, raising over $50,000 to support ABTA-funded GBM research, as well as providing financial assistance to local families affected by brain cancer. 

Ryan said the success of Kelli’s first event stemmed from her passion toward her mission and deep community connections. Kelli was already well-known in the community for her small business “Clothes with a Cause,” which donated 100 percent of its profits to local charities. 

Kelli had this light about her that made her different than everybody else,” Ryan said. “She was trying everything she could to make the world a better place.”

Through Kegs N’ Eggs, Kelli sought to empower local families affected by brain cancer to have what they need—whether it’s a motorized scooter or handicap bars installed in their shower.

“We wanted to have Kelli at home as much as possible, but a lot of things go into it that we just don’t think about,” Ryan said. “It’s not cheap.” 

Jason Noel and Kelli at the first Kegs N' Eggs 5K. Jason called Kelli “remarkably transparent” during her battle against GBM.

Kelli’s philanthropic pursuits inspired many, including Jason Noel—a fellow GBM warrior whom she met through a mutual friend. 

“We quickly had an instant connection as people who were fighting the same battles,” Jason said. “The brain tumor, chemo, raising children, being married and working…she was always there.”

Jason and his wife joined Kelli on her mission and helped organize Kegs N’ Eggs. Now serving on the event board, Jason says he is committed to carrying on Kelli’s legacy and vision.

“As a dear friend of Kelli and a person who has also faced the tough road of a brain tumor, it’s my personal desire to continue to ‘run’ toward a cure,” Jason said.

Friends like Jason are banding together with Kelli’s family to do even more hard thingslike ensuring the Second Annual Kegs N’ Eggs 5K (Saturday, May 20) is even more successful than the first.

“Once we had the energy and strength to do so, we had to push forward,” Ryan said. “It’s been a full group effort—all the friends, family, and people in the community.”

Ryan says he wants to continue being a voice for Kelli, especially regarding the need for more research funding. “We’re working with treatments that are 20-30 years old, that obviously don’t have a great success rate,” Ryan said. “If that’s the best option we can give people, that doesn’t seem right.” 

Although Kelli did not beat her diagnosis, Ryan says she made a tremendous difference throughout her journey—inspiring countless people and creating a legacy that will inspire hope in others for the future.

“I’m proud of the way that she fought, and she did the hardest things through it all,” Ryan said. 

Kelli was striving to double her impact this year by raising $100,000 through the Second Annual Kelli’s Kegs N’ Eggs 5K event. If you would like to help “do hard things” and contribute towards Kelli’s goal, you can do so here. 

Picture of Jessie Schlacks

Jessie Schlacks

Jessie is Managing Editor of the bi-monthly e-newsletter MindMatters. Submit story ideas or questions to jschlacks@abta.org.