This is my follow up post to ‘Coping with cancer as a young adult’ after attending Dana Farber’s Young Adult Cancer Conference on Saturday March 29th.
Dana Farber’s Young Adult Cancer Conference did not feel like a conference to me. It was a retreat. It was an opportunity to receive support, comfort, and to give back to other patients and survivors.
At first my boyfriend and I sat eating breakfast on our own. Although other people were sitting at our table we were all talking to ourselves, going over our schedule for the day and counting the minutes until the opening session. I started to get nervous. This was the first time that I was attending a support group. More people joined the table and suddenly we were all telling our stories. “How did you find out, you know, the news?”, asked the girl next to me. That was when I realized that it was okay to ask questions and to share stories because we all understood each other. Our conversation was interrupted when we were told the opening session was about to start.
Tara Shuman, unknowingly, continued our conversation in her talk. She told us it was normal to want to ask questions and to have questions. We came up with a list of things that young adults feel while going through cancer and the combination of responses made us all realize that although we may have had our treatments separately, we were not alone.
– Being defined by cancer
– Future goals changed
– Desire to retain some or all of their life as it was before cancer
Tara started her blog by writing e-mails to her family to update them of her situation. Most of us could relate as we had also found a personal way to express ourselves: journals, blogs, facebook status, etc. She reminded us and encouraged us to share our stories as it will benefit ourselves, our loved ones and others going through similar situations.
Although the stories shared brought back some hard memories, like the feeling of being betrayed by your own body, or the idea that cancer steals from you, she concluded her talk by sharing some of the wonderful moments she had during her treatments. Tara’s final message was a great segue into my next workshop.
Claire taught us about mind, body and self-care. She gave us advice on how to manage cancer and stress for relaxation. I decided to attend this workshop because every time I have a scan my anxiety and stress reach a new level. The breathing exercises she gave us helped slow down our breathing, energize our bodies and relax our minds. However, her message, for me, went farther than meditation. Besides the meditation exercises Claire shared advice on being more positive thinkers, given that we are all wired to focus on the negative. She stressed the importance of balancing negatives and positives. “We must keep the positive in the foreground and the negative in the background”. This way we develop gratitude, optimism and become resilient to hardship. During my treatment I kept a journal and decorated the cover using words that started with H like Hodgkin’s, Hurtado, Hope and Heal. Claire brought back ‘heal’ as she gave us four final steps to manage stress. H – Have a positive experience and be grateful, E – Enrich it, enjoy it for 10 – 30 seconds and intensify the positive, A – Absorb it, L – link it and join the positive with the negative.
For lunch I headed back to my table waiting to see who would come back and who else would join. I met a fellow Northeastern University graduate and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor. I couldn’t believe how much I had in common with people who minutes before were strangers. We were all attending different workshops after lunch. However, the connecting with others did not stop there.
I decided to attend the workshop for Navigating College and Cancer and although I am about to finish my undergraduate career, I was hoping I could get some questions answered and share my experience to help others. The talk was given by Michele who gave us great advice and on how to manage college socially and academically. We discussed how important it is to create a network and share with these people what you are going or have gone through. I have a close group of friends with who I share my feelings, one or two professors who know my situation and I kept in touch with my academic advisor while away from school. Michele mentioned the importance of informing professors and advisors ahead of time to ask for extensions and help with projects. I wish I had known this last semester when during finals I had a follow up scan and, honestly, do not know what I wrote for my final essays.
A couple of us were graduating and writing cover letters for jobs or personal statements to enter graduate school. Michele had actually contacted higher education administrators with questions about how we, applicants, should handle introducing ourselves and sharing our stories. From all the quotes that Michele shared with us we all noticed the words resilience, challenges, perseverance, strength. “Telling their story through their lessons learned, obstacles overcome, or even continued challenges on an on-going basis will help us to better know them as individuals”. It was the perfect way to end an amazing event. We were all there to share our stories, but more importantly we were all there to demonstrate our courage and help others.
-Written by Ana Hurtado, Boston Light The Night Walk walker and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor.