Barbara Kavanagh: Helping families cope with cancer

Launching a nonprofit was not part of her original plan, but Barbara Baroff Kavanagh graciously accepted it as her calling, due to life’s unexpected circumstances. After more than a decade the Glendale-based Arizona Myeloma Network (, which she founded in 2004, continues to thrive, providing a variety of free educational and awareness events to those living with, or caring for loved ones with, myeloma and other cancers.

At 76, Barbara is not slowing down, either. A published author, speaker and the CEO and president of the Arizona Myeloma Network, she has dedicated her life to helping others.

Barbara attributes her commitment to a life of service to a lesson she learned from her Russian Jewish parents, who arrived in this country with nothing and sent their three children on to college and successful careers: “You are so fortunate to live in this wonderful country and it is your duty to give back … to do a mitzvah for your people and for this wonderful country we live in.” And now, she says, “My mitzvah is to help other cancer patients and caregivers like my husband and myself. That was always a part of my life and I have tried to teach my daughters and grandchildren this lesson as well.”

A graduate of Duke University, Barbara earned a bachelor’s degree in English and sociology, and continued on to receive her master’s in social work from Boston University in 1963. After working as a faculty member of Boston College’s Graduate School of Social Work and developing its first employee assistance program, Barbara embarked on her entrepreneurial journey. She launched People to People Associates, a consulting, training and counseling company in 1976, wrote two books and was a highly sought after speaker for organizations on team building, and alcohol and drugs in the workplace.

In 1989, she met the love of her life, Jack Kavanagh. One month before they got married in 1991, she received some surprising and devastating news – Jack was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare and often misdiagnosed cancer of the bone marrow. Living overseas in Europe at the time, Barbara made it her sole mission to seek the best help and find answers.

“It was very challenging to find any organized network of cancer support and oncology resources. Out of frustration and compassion, I decided to devote all my energy and professional experience to learning about multiple myeloma and helping other cancer patients and their families find specialized oncology treatments and services,” says Barbara.

In 2003, she and Jack retired and made Arizona their permanent home to be closer to his ongoing medical treatments at Mayo Clinic Hospital. By 2004, she returned to her entrepreneurial roots, officially launched the Arizona Myeloma Network and quickly became recognized as the go-to resource after passionately creating a community for myeloma patients and their families.

“Barbara Kavanagh has meant a great deal to me and my family. … We have gained so much knowledge and support through this organization. We attend all of the multiple myeloma seminars, the cancer caregiver workshops and most of the events,” says Brian England, a caregiver for his mother, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2010.  “She has always made us feel like family and has made such a difference in people’s lives.”

Barbara also made history when her nonprofit received a proclamation from Governor Doug Ducey’s office designating the third week of March as “Arizona Myeloma Awareness Week.” Because of her ongoing efforts to provide education and hope to others in the same shoes, she and Jack were recognized in Tom Brokaw’s book, A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope, which he wrote in 2015 after being diagnosed with cancer. And more recently in April, the Arizona Myeloma Network was named a 2016 Great Nonprofit by

Throughout this year, she and Jack have hit several milestones to smile about. They recently hosted their 10th successful Annual Research Roundtable and Living with Myeloma Conference in Scottsdale, a two-day event that brings the country’s top myeloma experts face-to-face with patients and caregivers seeking advice and support. Jack celebrated his 79th birthday with Barbara by his side on a cruise to Panama City and is now officially a 25-year cancer survivor, after being told he would have only one to three years to live.
May also marks the couple’s silver anniversary.

Barbara and Jack are preparing for their next adventure, hosting their anticipated Out Race Cancer at the Bondurant Racing School on Saturday, June 4. This 5K timed run and 1M family fun run/walk supports cancer education. Then shortly after on June 18, Barbara holds her Cancer Caregivers Education Program, a curriculum she developed over the past seven years to provide caregivers with the knowledge, skills and strategies to care for their loved ones and themselves.

“Being a cancer caregiver for the past 25 years for my husband, and even to this day, I wished that there would be a program like this, where caregivers could come together in a supportive environment to share and learn from one another through personal experiences,” says Barbara. “It is so important that the caregiver also receives the knowledge and guidance they need to make well-informed decisions, not only emotional ones, on behalf of their loved one.”

As she looks ahead to the next chapter in her life and thinks about the legacy she wants to leave, Barbara sees herself building more programs for Arizona Myeloma Network, writing additional booklets for cancer caregivers and hiring staff to bring the organization into the next decade. On the personal side, she is setting out to write her memoir and envisions a lot more traveling, particularly with her family and grandchildren.

Barbara is an inspiration to the many lives she has touched, but is continually inspired, too, by the love and outpouring of support she receives from people she meets; her daughters, Debra and Lisa; and her husband, Jack.

“Jack inspired me to start my nonprofit. Because of him, I knew I had to do more to help other myeloma patients and families learn all they can about their disease and increase their chances of a better quality of life,” says Barbara. “He is my greatest personal and professional inspiration.”

Although her life has taken many unforeseen twists and turns, Barbara is grateful for all that she has learned and experienced throughout the years. She never forgets that in order to have a life full of contentment, she must always remember to “keep dreaming, hoping and wanting, but more importantly, to keep laughing and loving.”

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