The women I met at the Young Survivor’s Conference
Over the weekend of Feb. 23-25, I attended the Young Survivor’s Conference, an annual event for young women affected by breast cancer. The conference is sponsored by the Young Survival Coalition and Living Beyond Breast Cancer.
I attended the conference mostly because I wanted to meet the dozens of women in the YSC who have supported me throughout this past year. I have become good online friends with many women – some who were on a similar treatment path as me, some who are several years out from treatment and others who are dealing with a Stage IV diagnosis (and, therefore, never really “out” of treatment).
I had no idea before the conference that I needed to be in a ballroom with 850 or so young breast cancer survivors. I didn’t know that it would make me feel so empowered and alive.
I had no idea that I would feel so much like I was attending a family reunion. At a family reunion, people don’t always look alike. They hardly ever act alike or think alike. The main thing they have in common is some grandparent or great-grandparent that half of them can’t remember. Yet, they are always happy to see everyone and regret the limited amount of time spent together each year. At this reunion, we all had that bastard ancestor breast cancer to thank for our attendance.
I figured that it might be hard to meet some of the women I “knew” from the boards. In the past, I’ve only met a few people in person who I originally came to know online. Those meetings were always unusual. I would think I had someone “figured out,” then would find they were pretty different in person. It wasn’t bad, just different. So, when I was heading to the conference, I vowed to try not to have preconceived notions about my board “friends.” I decided to go and have a good time, no matter what. I figured there would be plenty of people to talk to, I would never have to spend time with someone I didn’t like!
What I didn’t imagine is that everyone I met would exceed my expectations in a very positive way. First, every woman I knew from the boards was much more beautiful than her photo online ever showed! It was like living an experiment in how flat and lifeless photography can be! None of the photos showed how fun and funny these women are; how lively and full of life. Even the best pictures don’t show their spirit.
Second, every woman I met was nicer than I expected! Don’t ask me what I was expecting! I really didn’t think badly of any of them, but each of you was better in person than I imagined you to be. A few people were exactly as awesome and as nutty as I expected. The rest all greatly exceeded the kindness and love I thought they had in them.
Third, I was shocked at how height really is just not translated in online postings and pictures! One woman, who I thought was a tiny little pixie girl, is tall and looks like a model. Another suprisingly tall woman, also had a fantastic smile and very sparkly eyes. A third amazing person I just adored online, fit her BIG personality into a teeny little body.
Fourth, I know I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, that so many young survivors just love to flash their fake boobies, even in crowded rooms. I can’t wait until I love my new boobie (or boobies, whatever the case may be) that much. And I appreciated seeing what was possible!
Finally, I didn’t know that meeting women with metastatic disease would make me feel hopeful – for them and for myself. (Women with metastatic breast cancer, also called Stage IV breast cancer, have an average life expectancy of about 24 months.) My goodness – the women with mets had so much energy and life. Sometimes I have felt so much fear for them. I’ve cried at their diagnoses. I’ve cried when one of “us” died. But seeing them, hugging them, getting to talk to them and look in their eyes – I felt so much more peace about that diagnosis. It sucks to be sure. We need to find a cure for this disease, um, like, yesterday. However, being in a room with them and having the immense privilege of sitting at a table with them, reinforced for me how strong they are and how strong we all are. I can’t put into words how fucking amazing they are.
One woman, Angela, had just gotten her mets diagnosis right before the conference. I sat at lunch on Friday with her and some other women I knew. She sounded so strong. Even when her voice would shake and tears would start to well up, she just sounded so damn strong. I had this “out of body” feeling about when friends would look at me during chemo and say, “I could never be as courageous as you.” It used to make me so MAD. I actually screamed at one friend that she didn’t know what she was talking about. I wasn’t courageous, I was just doing what the doctors told me to do. I had no other choice. I could curl up and die, or I could take chemo. Where is the courage in that? But looking at Angela talking about how she was just going to have to do whatever they said, I wanted to tell her, “You are so amazing.” She is.
That’s when it hit me: we all are. All of us with breast cancer have our amazingness in common! We get our asses out of bed (most days). We put our feet on the floor. We feed our kids, our dogs, our cats, our husbands or our partners. We go to work. We barf in the bathroom and go back to work. We do what the doctors tell us to do. We try to keep hope. We take drugs and get therapy. We support each other even when we can’t prop ourselves up.
We are facing our mortality. Every person in the world is mortal, but few of them know it. We know it. We are threatened with it every time we have a doctor’s appointment. We have to deal with it. We have to keep getting out of bed and keep feeding the kids even though we’d rather be spending their inheritance and drinking ourselves silly on a beach somewhere. So, maybe instead of spending all of their inheritance, we spend just a little and go on vacation with the “girls” a couple of times a year. Maybe we get a self-feeder so we don’t have to think about the dog so much (and can spend more time with those kids we are no longer saving money for!). Maybe we tell the doctor to keep his sad little statistics to himself and only tell us the good news. Maybe – just maybe – we end up getting just a little bit more out of our precious lives then those poor saps walking around kidding themselves about the end.