Founder of Ovarian Cancer Together says goodbye to Los Alamos

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By Special to the Monitor

In 2001, when Kay Kerbyson followed her husband to Los Alamos, she had no idea what life would have in store for her.  

Kerbyson had had a successful career as a BMW engine designer and manager in England and Germany. Despite the uncertainty of living in a new country, she said she was looking forward to the new challenge. Now, after living in Los Alamos for nearly                                                              10 years and having to deal with infertility, her husband’s cancer and Kerbyson having cancer twice herself, it might seem she’d be all too ready to leave. In fact, she said, the opposite is true.

“Cancer changed my life,” Kerbyson said, “but I found a vocation, a family and a home here. That’s why I’m so sad to be leaving now.”

Kerbyson and her family are moving to Richland, Wash. in June, where her husband has taken a position as a Fellow at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Cancer really did change her life, Kerbyson said. After not knowing what direction to take her life in America, cancer gave it a new meaning.

“I knew I wanted to help others through the terrible ordeal that cancer is,” Kerbyson said. Her work started after her second battle with cancer. Kerbyson started producing and distributing flyers around Los Alamos to warn moms of the symptoms and risks of ovarian cancer, the disease she’d been first diagnosed with in late 2006. Then, when she tried to reach out to other ovarian cancer survivors in New Mexico, she found there was no easy way to do it. Kerbyson said, “I knew I needed to talk to other local ovarian cancer survivors and so I felt sure that others had the same need too.”

Kerbyson had never built a Web site, nor done charity work before, but as she said, “It seemed that if I didn’t do it no one else would.”

That’s when Ovarian Cancer Together (OCT) was born.  At first it was only a networking and resource Web site, then she added a local support group, with ties to support groups statewide and now it’s a full-fledged nonprofit corporation with tax-exempt status. Since its inception in 2008, the Web site has had nearly 1,000 hits and while the membership started as three friends in Los Alamos, there are now more than 20 online members and dozens more statewide.

As part of the nonprofit’s work, Kerbyson continues to educate women and has distributed thousands of flyers throughout New Mexico. Every year Kerbyson sends flyers home to moms with a child entering kindergarten. Thanks to many generous donations, this year she’ll be targeting high school parents, too. “No one is too young or too old to get ovarian cancer. Women have to know the signs because they are so subtle,” Kerbyson said.

Kerbyson’s nonprofit has continued to grow, building alliances with other charities like the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance, an organization which helps state residents find and secure a place on clinical trials. “The only hope for ovarian cancer survivors is research and new drugs,” Kerbyson said, adding, “clinical trials are vital for us.”

OCT also works very closely with the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, an organization, which lobbies Congress for improved medical coverage and research for ovarian cancer. Kerbyson said she is proud to be able to represent the interests and specific concerns of New Mexicans at a national level.

Despite leaving town, “I’m committed to continuing support for New Mexican women,” Kerbyson said. “Every cent donated here will be used here.” With the help of local member Bernice Williams and board member Louise Hanna, OCT will continue in New Mexico with Kerbyson helping run the business from her new home in Washington. “We’re just expanding the business across America, one state at a time” Kerbyson joked. “What was true for New Mexico two years ago is true for Washington today. They have no networking organization that helps women support one another across the state.”

Along with her ovarian work, Kerbyson has also worked hard for all cancer survivors. She has served as board member and then secretary of the Los Alamos Council on Cancer (LACC). She developed and will continue to maintain the LACC’s Web site. She instigated the annual Cancer Angel Award, honoring those silent heroes in the community who give of themselves to help other cancer survivors. Additionally, she initiated the LACC’s links with the Family Strengths Network, co-developing a seminar on “Helping Your Child Cope with Your Cancer.” She also found a facilitator, home and sponsor for the town’s only cancer support group.

Kerbyson has also written a monthly column for The Monitor about life with cancer for more than a year now. “People stop me every week in the street and tell me how a particular column touched them or how much more they understand survivorship now. To be given the opportunity to do that is such a blessing,” Kerbyson said.

She joked that the root of all her good deeds is selfishness. “It brings such joy to my life to see others, who I know are struggling, be comforted by something I’ve done. And it basically helps me with my own cancer journey, too. It takes the focus off my own troubles and redirects it in a positive way. It’s pretty selfish really.”  

From career women to caregiver,  from cancer survivor to advocate, Kerbyson’s time in Los Alamos has not been without challenges and leaving will be her next obstacle. “I thought I would live the rest of my days here, but I should have known better. Life has a way of surprising you when you least expect it. You have to take what you have and turn it into a positive.”