Breast Cancer blog

Being human: A holiday gathering

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 9:48am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 9:53am

It took an entire season to get to the support group. Sure I'd gotten the reminders - the “save the dates” and the occasional email from another young breast cancer survivor who has asked me how I’m settling in, and oh-by-the-way there’s a meeting coming up for the young cancer survivors, and are you going? Thanks, great, and now let’s shift the conversation to the Kardashians.

But there’s always been some sort of excuse - I’ve been stuck inside the term-paper writing cave, I can’t get myself to the train station for the schlep, or maybe the fear of putting myself in the spotlight and doing an emotional striptease. I’d seen all of the movies before starting with the AA meetings. “Hi, my name is Amy, I’m 38 (a newly minted 38), I’m a breast cancer survivor and I’m really scared of being here because…” 

Fear can be debilitating so I’d put the meetings on the back burner, perhaps unconsciously. But on this frigid Sunday afternoon, less than two weeks before Christmas, I’d surfaced from the writing cave, semi recovered from the holiday party food comas, and I’d done much of the Christmas (aka online shopping). The office was clearing out, I found myself twiddling a finger and looking at the clock. If I got up now I could make it to the meeting. I could do it, so I picked myself up, somewhat reluctantly at first, but nonetheless picked myself up.

Life as I’ve come to learn is a series of decisions, crossroads and forks, everyday there are dozens of them, some life altering many perhaps leading to a life-altering impact. There is decision making based on checklists, pros and cons, dos and don’ts, and then there’s pure intuition and those decisions have been the sweetest and most surprising in the end. The decision to go was based on pure intuition.

So I made the trek via public transportation to the metro station into the heart of the city, walked past the holiday shoppers, the Salvation Army Santas, and arrived at the centre, the front of it an art gallery and the inside where the meeting would be held was a spacious room, warmly lit, with a mini buffet of quesadillas and guacamole and chips set out, and a circle of chairs that swiftly filled with young people, mostly in their late 20s to early 30s who currently or had suffered some form of cancer. Most of them were women, but there were a handful of men. In some cases you could clearly see who remained in Cancerland. A pretty young woman with the bluest eyes with a kerchief, a large black woman who looked healthy if it had not been for her severely thinning hair, and I spotted a third young woman who was clearly wearing a wig. But most of them as what one might define as normal. It could have been a film discussion group, but this was cancer.

Counterclockwise, everyone shared their cancer story, and this is where normalcy was shattered. Some told the stories matter-of-factly, others with bitterness, others with humour. The stories were sobering – the girl who had a reoccurrence at the same time her father was diagnosed with cancer, a woman who was treated for cancer of the eye only to swiftly find out it had moved to cancer of the breast with signs of it on her liver. There was a pretty woman with long blonde hair who later shared that the hair was a wig. It was once again sobering. There was the young man with the infectious smile who had had his entire colon removed.

I was scared when it came to me and gave my drive-through minute version of the story, mostly sticking with the facts. Surgery, radiation, the bi-continental move, early on I’d realised that I was maybe the luckiest one there with the lightest case, but being out in the spotlight was frightening. In retrospect I had told my story in one breath, I was that nervous.

The ball got rolling after someone threw out a question about the holiday season. In the season of festivities in the land of the healthy and happy (check out all of those Facebook updates on closed mortgages, wedding gowns and new babies), how are we as the sick or as survivors supposed to react?

A young woman said that she remained her festive self, almost to prove to loved ones that she was very much alive. Another young woman said that as a survivor every day was something to be thankful for. The large black woman chimed in. “I don’t know, I’m just thinking ‘bah humbug I’m about to lose both my boobs’, I don’t want to be cheerful,” she said. We all chuckled because at some point there is always that envy and jealousy when looking at others of our vintage who haven’t wrestled with the suffering of illness and the possibility of death.

As we noshed on guacamole and chips we all agreed that we wrestled with our two selves. On one hand being happy for loved ones, perhaps pretending to be happy for their sake, almost managing our loved ones fears, but where was this outlet to vent our own frustrations and fears. A young woman astutely observed that the need to be happy was so part of the culture, especially the American culture. There was a superficiality to day-to-day interactions starting with the “Hi how are you?” “Oh I’m great.” This façade was so similar to the Facebook culture - the false one-sided façade of happiness. And so it was with living with cancer. There was the paradox of sharing the true story of pain and anger and the pressure to shield others of our unhappiness because that is what is right and normal. We didn’t want to be the spoilers of the party.

What eventually emerged were three distant viewpoints about being a young cancer survivor -- optimism, cancer as a gift, on the other spectrum bitterness, anger and jealousy, and the third party (myself included) it depended on what side of the bed I woke up on that day.

Nonetheless, in the land of the fucked or seriously fucked (once seriously fucked), there was humour. A woman talked about the overuse of 'but you look greats' at the recent holiday party, another woman talked about her B.C. (Before Cancer) self and the desire to perhaps start all over again. We’d come to the conclusion somewhere that Facebook is one-dimensional and does not reveal the fuzzy in-betweens realities.

Everyone fights their own battles, the woman with the new baby struggling with post-partum depression, the newlyweds fighting and struggling to make ends meet. You never know what a person really feels unless you are in their heart. A healthy person could be incredibly happy while a sick person could be at peace.

These wisdoms from such young people were amazing. Some of the mini lessons and takeaways were:

  • Every day is a gift
  • I'm glad I have this knowledge and perspective on life that others my age don't have
  • I look at 75-year-olds and think God has been good to you that's if there is a God

Life is about facing one’s fears and slaying the dragon, and for me getting out of my comfort zone and facing fears. And life was in great part about perspective as I’d learned from the evening. There was a young black man who said that his friends recently invited him to a guy’s weekend trip to Vegas and of course he could not go. He’s been struggling with chemo treatment, but Vegas was a goal to aspire to. And if he could be an example to other young people to live life to the fullest that was a gift enough. Being human was about being resilient. I found myself smiling and whistling as I walked outside to brace the cool of a winter night, but feeling incredibly blessed and yes festive.