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LIVING WITH BREAST CANCER

5 Things I Learned at the Young Survival Coalition Summit

By Rethink Breast Cancer March 28 2018

 

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in May of 2016 at 34 years old, I felt isolated and afraid. My treatments were spent in a room full of women much older than me, the constant stares and whispers as I walked past that I was too young. I wished so badly that I was but I had become one of the 5% of women facing breast cancer under the age of 40. My life was now spoken about in terms of statistics and I was blanketed with chemo and radiation to increase my chances of survival. Once treatment ended though, that sense of security was suddenly ripped away and I slipped into a dark place of fear and uncertainty of my future.

But then something happened. A woman I followed on social media posted about an event called the YSC Summit, a conference put on by the Young Survival Coalition (YSC) for young women diagnosed with breast cancer between the ages of 18 and 40 and their co-survivors. I was apprehensive to go as I didn’t know anyone but I thought what do I have to lose?

YSC in Oakland (2017), YSC in Orlando (2018)

I made the trip down to Oakland, California last year which ended up completely changing my life and turned things around for me. I was surrounded by hundreds of young women who were not only surviving but thriving, and I thought to myself if they can do it, then why couldn’t I?

As soon as I got back home, I saved my spot for the 2018 YSC Summit in Orlando, Florida and started making plans on attending. I was fortunate enough to qualify for a travel grant this year through the YSC which covered a significant portion of my travel costs allowing me to attend without the added financial burden (they also offer fee waiver applications which help cover the cost of the conference itself). When I arrived, I was met by hundreds of women and their co-survivors, some familiar faces from the year before and lots of new ones that I would soon get to know over the weekend.

The three-day conference was packed full of events from general sessions on nutrition and exercise to breakout sessions on confronting the fear of recurrence and building a family after cancer, to legacy retreats for women living with metastatic breast cancer. There were keynote speakers including surgical oncologist Dr. Lori Wilson who spoke about her own struggle with breast cancer and dozens of vendors providing breast cancer information and support.

While there were so many incredible takeaways from this event, these were some of the most valuable lessons I learned from this year’s YSC Summit:

A group of young survivors including CEO of the YSC, Jennifer Merschdorf
1. You are never alone.

Call it a sisterhood. Call it a community. Call it a tribe. No one gets it more than those who have been through it. They understand the emotional and physical effects of treatment on our bodies, the struggles with self-confidence after undergoing multiple surgeries, and the uncertainty of navigating life after cancer. From the moment you walk into the conference, you are a part of this huge family. No explanations needed, no judgments passed. Just this instant bond between people who get it.

2. It’s okay not to be okay.

We often hear those words “be positive” or “stay strong!” But at one of the breakout sessions on Living Fully After Cancer, guest speaker and psychotherapist Julie Larson reinforced what we all need to hear again sometimes, that we don’t need to be strong all the time. Some days are going to be crappy and others we may feel great. We just have to acknowledge how we’re feeling in each moment and accept that as it is.

3. Co-survivors need support too.

As much as we are struggling, our family, friends, and loved ones are too. They may feel helpless and afraid as they watch us go through countless treatments and surgeries and neglect to tend to their own needs. That is why the YSC provides breakout sessions for co-survivors ranging from topics such as mindful caregiving to being intimate after cancer, and how to show self-compassion. Because if you’re not taking care of yourself and having your own needs met, then how are you able to care for your loved ones?

4. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

I commend the YSC on providing one of the most valuable tools at the summit: free drop-in counseling sessions for both survivors and co-survivors. Coming to an event like this can stir up a lot of feelings and emotions. Remembering those we’ve lost and struggling with survivor’s guilt and the uncertainty about our own futures. Breast cancer is an emotional rollercoaster ride and being able to reach out for help to address some of these issues is really important.

And finally…

5. Everyone’s story is unique.

Although we are commonly bonded through breast cancer, our stories are all unique. From the differences in diagnosis, treatments, and surgeries we receive, to the way in which we process them is going to be very personal. Some people may find it therapeutic to share their stories while others want to keep more private and that’s okay. There is no right or wrong way through this. We just need to acknowledge our experiences as our own.

Me and Meghan Koziel, who inspired me to attend for the first time last year; Me getting up close and personal with one of the cute dogs at the breakout session on pet therapy.

 

The next YSC Summit is slotted to take place March 8-10, 2019 in Austin, Texas and I’m already excited about going back. The bonds that I’ve made and the information I’ve taken away from this incredible event is second to none. And to think I almost didn’t go that first year. Well let’s just say, I’m glad that stepped out of my comfort zone and took the plunge.


Kim Angell is a breast cancer survivor, advocate and blogger that is living and loving life on Vancouver Island, BC. Check out her blog at http://smilethroughthefog.com