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At the end of February, I had the opportunity to go to the annual Young Survival Coalition Summit for young women facing breast cancer.  I’ve gone every year since I was diagnosed.   This brings my summit experiences to eight.  Every year the summit is one of the most important events I look forward to.  It brings together young women from all over the country that are going through breast cancer or have gone through it in the past.  Family, friends, spouses and significant others are invited as well.  The weekend is  spent socializing, networking, learning and experiencing. 

When we all go back home to our cities, towns and states we are somewhat outcasts.  Let me explain.  I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 32 years old.  I had no family history.  I had no friends who had experienced cancer.  I had no one to turn to who would “get it.”  Don’t get me wrong, I was supported by my family and friends.  The outpouring of support blew me away, and it’s the reason I made it through my treatment with more smiles on my face than tears.  However, I felt more alone than I ever had in my life.  I was an outcast.

There was no one to go to for me to be reassured that my constant fears of cancer recurrence were normal.  There was no one for me to turn to when I hated the look of my bald head.  There was no one I could talk to that could understand that I hoped to live to my 35th birthday.  My friends were talking about getting married and having babies.  They were all proceeding in life like normal.  They had no fears of chemo. They didn’t know what it was like to have their breasts surgically removed and wake up to a flat chest.  They didn’t understand the feeling of wanting to reach another birthday so bad it almost physically hurt.  And looking forward to milestones like 40 or 50?  No one understood why I looked forward to getting older like that.  No one.

When I did reach out, I heard about aunts and grandmas who had cancer at the age of 75.  I heard stories of “Oh, I knew someone who had breast cancer, but…..oh, never mind, you don’t want to hear that story.”  They were right.  I didn’t.  And comparing my 32-year-old self with a 75-year-old was certainly not helpful.  After a bit of research, I found a group of younger women who were breast cancer survivors like me.  Most were diagnosed before their 40th birthday as well.  I finally found the people that could relate.  I didn’t have to explain any of those fears or frustrations to this group of women.  They just got it.  They experienced it already or were going through it just as I was.

Spending more time with young survivors made me felt less alone and almost normal again.  In that support group room, I was normal.  I was just one of the girls.  It felt almost natural to talk about chemo and breast implants.  Reconstruction was a basic topic.  Losing hair and wearing wigs was like talking about the new spring collection of shoes at the local department store.  I needed this socialization to get through my cancer journey.  It was in this group that I heard about the summit.  I couldn’t believe there was actually a conference in which young women from all over the country got together to, yes, talk cancer, but also to socialize, get to know each other, share tips and tricks, and most importantly, stabilize each other emotionally.  I couldn’t believe that there were that many of us that could form an entire conference.  I knew I had to figure out a way to go.   After my first conference, I knew it would be a requirement every year of my life thereafter, and I haven’t looked back.

As I reflected about the summit this year, it hit me as I surveyed the huge hotel ballroom in which we were all in, listening to one of the summit speakers.  The room easily had 500 people in it.  Not everyone in that room was a cancer survivor.  Some of those filling the space were part of the support team that we all need.  However, as I thought about it, I realized that in that room at that very moment I was NOT the odd women out this time.  I didn’t have to worry about fitting in.  I belonged.  I had fought cancer.  I had lost my hair, my breasts and my emotional stability but so had the majority of those women sitting in that room.  It’s a bit odd to say but I felt exhilarated at that moment.  Those people who didn’t have cancer were the odd people out.  They were the ones who obviously fit in because they were supporting us, but they didn’t fit in in the cancer realm.  In those three days of the summit it felt normal to be a cancer survivor.  It felt normal to be around all those other amazing survivors

When I leave the summit each year, I am a bit sad that we all are spread out throughout the country and world.  That’s the tough part.  However, the easiest part is digging into the memories.  Whenever I feel sad and lonely about dealing with cancer, I am reminded of the 500 people at the summit.  I am not alone.  I am not an outcast.  We are there for each other via emails, social media and text. That survivor you need to chat with is a phone call away, a quick text or a face-to-face coffee date if you are lucky enough to live close.  Yes, we might be outnumbered by people who have never faced cancer and don’t understand.  However, at least once a year, we outnumber everyone else in the crowd and don’t have to be the outcasts, if only for a weekend.

Accept, believe and life will proceed,

Dana Stewart
Co-Founder, Dragonfly Angel Society 
FB:  The Dragonfly Angel Society – Cancer Survivorship

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