Kelly Lerbekmo (left) and her friend Amber Getchell enjoy a brisk walk along Okanagan Lake on a sunny November day. Lerbekmo received word in October that the cancer she thought she had beaten with the removal of most of her left lung had spread to her liver, giving her only two to three years to live. (Mark Brett - Western News)

Young Penticton mom hoping to beat terminal cancer prognosis

Kelly Lerbekmo is not ready to leave her son without a mother

As an active young mother, wife and entrepreneur, time used to be something Kelly Lerbekmo had plenty of.

That was until the young Penticton woman received news over Thanksgiving weekend that would change her life entirely – doctors had found adenocarcinoma with an aggressive cell mutation, in other words cancer in her liver.

Now, time is all too precious with the prognosis she may only have two or three more years to live.

But this is also not her first serious medical challenge.

Lerbekmo has always been athletic, playing college volleyball and beach volleyball, and competing in marathons and triathlons at every chance she had in her adult life and she had even completed the 2018 Ironman in Whistler. So it was shocking to say the least when a CT scan in December of that year revealed the 44-year-old non-smoker had a 10-centimetre tumor in her left lung.

“It was pretty much the entire bottom lobe of my left lung. So I had surgery January 14 (2019) and they removed pretty much three quarters of my left lung, the entire bottom lobe and a good chunk of the top one,” said Lerbekmo.

“From there I had to recover from surgery for a couple months … and then my chemotherapy started in March and I had to do four full rounds and they figured that it would take care of any remaining cancer cells that were in my body. That’s what we were hoping.”

Not one to let her circumstances slow her down, Lerbekmo said she was back to jogging exactly six weeks after her surgery, slowly rebuilding her stamina until she had to start chemo. She said the biggest challenge at that point was learning to breathe again, but one she overcame with flying colours.

“Once chemo was finished, I got right back into it and signed up for a triathlon just to see if I could do it,” said Lerbekmo. “I could, I went for one training ride with my uncle up McLean Creek. I did one training swim just to make sure I could still swim and breathe okay.”

When it came time for her first follow-up scan in October, it had seemed Lerbekmo hadn’t just beaten her cancer, she crushed it. But sadly, this was not the case and her family received the devastating word in October that not only had her cancer spread to her liver, her oncologist predicted she had just years to live.

“It was the day after my husband and my seven year anniversary, and the day before Thanksgiving,” recalled Lerbekmo.

“Me and my family were all in Maui for the holiday, and that’s when I was supposed to call my GP for the results. He said ‘I’m really sorry but it’s back in your liver, it’s metastasized and the chemo didn’t work,” said Lerbekmo.

“Then I spoke with my oncologist the same day, and sitting in the parlour in my mom and dad’s house and she broke the news that a prognosis like this is typically two years. But since then she said it’s actually gone up to three years.”

Immediately, Lerbekmo started doing the math. In three years her son would only be seven-years-old, and she wasn’t ready to leave him without a mother.

“The hardest part was wrapping my head around my son, Leo, not having a mom. When somebody says two to three years, my son isn’t even going to be 10-years-old. That’s not acceptable,” said Lerbekmo. “That’s the hardest pill to swallow. Now that I have a child, it just changes everything.”

In terms of treatment, Lerbekmo’s oncologist requested that she immediately start taking a recently developed drug, Osimertinib, which has had amazing results in treating this form of cancer. But unfortunately, this drug comes at a cost of $10,172 a month and is not covered by PharmaCare or Canadian public health insurance.

“There have been a number of case studies of people on this drug where it radically dissolves or reduces the tumor and you’re clear of cancer,” said Lerbekmo.

She said it is unclear to her at this point if her current life expectancy takes the treatment into consideration, but she recognizes that the medication is not a permanent cure. Regardless, she has chosen to fight for her life and said her new mantra is that she wants 30 years, not three.

READ MORE: South Okanagan mom battling stage four Hodgkin lymphoma

“I keep thinking to myself, minimum 15 years. I am going to absolutely 100 per cent be here in 15 years. And then I catch myself and think, no that’s crap. That’s a half Ironman,” said Lerbekmo with a laugh. “I want 30 years, I am going for the full Ironman.”

After exhausting options with her drug navigator and the Compassionate Care Program, luck finally turned for the Lerbekmo family when her husband, Joe, learned his health coverage through work will cover her medication for one year.

“The Compassionate Care Program would not cover the medication for me because the cancer had not moved to my brain. Because it has not yet moved there, it is not covered,” said Lerbekmo, who has now been on the drug for roughly two weeks. “What this drug does, and why my oncologist wants me on it is to prevent it from going to my brain because I guess that’s just the natural progression of the gene.”

Kelly said they are still trying to fundraise for her treatment because if Joe were to lose his job, her coverage would end, and after one year is up, it is not guaranteed that the insurance will continue to cover her treatment.

This is where Amber Getchell and the many other friends and family of the Lerbekmo’s stepped up to help. They are currently organizing a fundraiser event at the Barley Mill Pub on Nov. 21 to add to Kelly’s ongoing medical funds, and there are plans for future fundraisers in the new year.

“It’s frustrating that our own medical system is forcing people to go out of country for treatments like this when we’re helping people like addicts on the street get treatment,” said Getchell. “I get so angry, she’s a contributing citizen to society and we can’t even get her the medication.”

READ MORE: Barley Mill Brew Pub adds second event for fundraiser for Willowbrook mother with cancer

To date, a GoFundMe page for Lerbekmo’s medical funds has raised $18,279 thanks to 146 donors. She said she is so grateful for all of the support her friends and family have shown her through this difficult time, and she was surprised at the number of people reaching out to her that said she has had an impact on them and their lives.

The fundraiser will run from 6 to 10 p.m. and tickets include a burger, salad bar and entry into the door prize. There will also be a silent auction and entertainment so attendees can dance the night away. Tickets are $30 each and are available in advance at the pub or online at Eventbrite. Those interested in donating items to the silent auction can contact Getchell at 250-488-1502.

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Jordyn Thomson | Reporter
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