With Help from Young Survivors Group, Oncology Nurse Has Peak Experience

Young man sitting in group circle smiling at the camera.

When Kelly Gernander, an oncology nurse in the University of Vermont Cancer Center’s Oncology-Hematology Clinic, finished a grueling chemotherapy regimen in 2007 and was declared cancer-free, she felt on top of the world. Less than a year later, she really was on top of the world, cresting the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro with a group of rock musicians from The Fixx, Squeeze and the Stray Cats, many cancer survivors themselves.

The seven-day trip, which she applied for after seeing The Fund – and awareness-raising annual event promoted on MTV, was “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and one of the hardest,” Gernander says. The trek was Gernander’s way of celebrating her victory over cancer. “I wanted to prove to myself I was back,” she says.

She hadn’t always felt so powerful. In the semester before graduating from nursing school at Johns Hopkins University, she began experiencing GI symptoms. She thought she might have Crohn’s disease, as an uncle had, and went for a colonoscopy. The enterologist had an unwelcome surprise. She had bowel cancer.

After surgery at Hopkins, she came home to Burlington, where her parents lived, and opted to receive chemotherapy through the UVM Cancer Center. 

Since recovering, Gernander has been steadily giving back, running bone marrow drives at rock concerts and volunteering when she could. “I have this great sense of purpose,” she says. “I was very grateful to still be alive and wanted to help others who were going through it.” 

Last year she began facilitating Burlington’s Young Survivors Group, a support group she helped form during her treatment and drew great strength from.

The group, whose members range from age 18 to 40, provides a unique and much-needed service, says the group’s other co-facilitator and co-founder, Kathy McBeth, a psychologist at UVM Medical Center.

“The normal cancer trajectory doesn't necessarily include things like infertility issues or worrying about completing college or going home to live with your parents,” says McBeth.

Over the years, more than 70 people have been through the support group. For all of them, McBeth, also a cancer survivor, has had one goal: “To help people feel less alone.”

Gernander helped form the group at a breaking point in her chemotherapy. “I needed more support than I was getting.” In leading the group now, she remembers back to that feeling.

“We've been conditioned to grow up and think we can do everything on our own,” Gernander says. “I want people to know it’s OK to accept help. Friends are there for a reason.”

For more information about the Young Survivors Group, contact Kathy McBeth at kathleen.mcbeth [at] uvmhealth.org (kathleen[dot]mcbeth[at]uvmhealth[dot]org). The group’s meetings and social activities are funded by a grant from the Victoria Buffum Foundation.

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