Cancer Confab: connecting with other women with breast cancer
I have headed south, in part to escape the unbearable cold winter in the east coast but also to attend a conference that I’ve been secretly looking forward to for a while.
C4YW is an annual confab for young women (the 40 and under crowd) with breast cancer, and this year it was in Orlando, home of Disney World. I am here to connect with ladies just like me, and secretly hoping to form some friendships.
The conference is amazing – everything is so pink, and the women are basking in pink. There is an exhibition centre packed with vendors from companies who specialise in breast reconstruction, to lingerie companies that cater to the cancer crowd to others that sell some very cool looking turbans for women undergoing chemo.
There’s lots of pink bling – pins, bracelets, T-shirts, pink tattoos, pink and pearly finger nails, pink eye lashes, and pink ribbon everywhere.
I feel like I am home and yet a stranger if this makes any sense. This is my first conference, and I am what they call a new survivor. We know how many years a survivor based on the Hawaiian-themed leis we are given – white means under a year (that’s me), green is one to five years, orange is six to nine years and those who have survived 10 or more years are awarded with a hot pink lei. There are additional colours for those with high-risk cancers or caregivers.
The journey here has been somewhat lonely though. I came alone and quickly discovered that many of the other ladies had formed friendships from previous conferences or events. There is a bit of feeling like I’m the new girl in a sorority, only the sorority is the sisterhood of breast cancer.
Unlike sororities though there was something both refreshing and sombre about how open everyone was about their illness.
A typical greeting started off with “How many years a survivor?” or “What do you have?” or “How did you find out about the cancer?” Over the icebreaker bingo I shared a somewhat amusing conversation with a marble-eyed chubby young woman who had also been diagnosed less than a year ago. I told her that my lump had been almost 3cm. “No way, crazy,” she said. I told her that I was treated in Hong Kong. “No way, crazy,” she said. “No way, crazy,” turned out to be her signature mantra.
Perhaps most striking were how open the women were. Here was a place we could make instant friends, a bond known as cancer. I ran into Ray from the west coast, her green lei indicating her three years of survivorship. She was here to check out possibilities regarding breast reconstruction. I also met a woman who had been served a double whammy; first breast cancer and now a few years later bone cancer. And I thought I had been served life’s lemons.
After the official opening we mingled over bingo, lemonade, red wine and cheese platters (all of the unhealthy stuff that ironically isn’t great for the body but wonderful for the spirit).
Over adult beverages we struck up a conversation with a tall broad shouldered woman named Julia – definitely not a young woman – who said that she had been a survivor for 27 years, had hearing aids, cataracts, had both hips replaced and had suffered cancer in one breast and then the other, but here she was alive and ready to dance at tomorrow’s dessert and DJ party.
Here she was, a woman whose body had been through the wringer, but her spirit was healthy. “I’m almost 90,” she said. We were silent and then shook our heads in disbelief.
We were encouraged and inspired. “Hopefully we can get there someday too,” Ray said to me as we toasted each other to life and always laughter. Let the party begin.