Whenever I meet other young women with breast cancer, I’m sad and happy at the same time. I hate knowing they had to experience this horrible disease, but I’m happy it brought us together as sisters.
That feeling was magnified by the hundreds this past weekend at OMG! Cancer Summit for Young Adults in Las Vegas, where around 450 young cancer survivors and supporters networked and discussed, cried and laughed.
We learned about how cancer treatments leave us all with lasting effects and how the doctors who care for us try to balance that with the quality of life concerns for people who haven’t had a mid-life crisis yet.
More than 70,000 young women and men, ages 15 to 39, are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. And the founder of Stupid Cancer, Matthew Zachary, who was diagnosed as a young adult 17 years ago, said in his opening remarks that people are “ready to hear us” and that we have to be the change we want to see in the world.
So this weekend we talked about changing the way middle schoolers respond to a girl whose hair is growing back from treatment or a guy whose family who can’t see that he didn’t “cause” his cancer but is thriving with it. Or the girl whose right hand trembles because of a brain tumor and how she just wants to eat and drink at a cocktail party without calling attention to herself. Or what makes another comfortable enough that she shows off her scars. Or starts a family.
This was my first summit, and I realized that there’s some sort of magic that happens when we’re all together. There are those unspoken nods, two strangers talking like besties in minutes, and how people around us, like the cabbie who drove my roommate and me to the airport, learn that young people can and do get cancer. And despite our illness, we have the same hopes, wishes and dreams just like everyone else — we just took a detour on the big C train, and we’re forever changed by it.
That’s actually something I learned this weekend. Two years after my breast cancer diagnosis, I’m still realizing how transformative my cancer experience was. In many ways I am not the same person. I have different hair, a different body and a different way of looking at the world as a whole. I no longer get upset when I chip my nail polish — now I keep my cool during scans by pretending I’m getting a fabulous spa treatment. And I’m thankful that I’m here to fight with my sister.
And through the Young Survival Coalition, which supports young women with breast cancer, I’ve learned this weekend that I have many sisters. They’re older and younger, are married and dating. And we all just want to connect. Face to face. As one woman mentioned during a YSC reception this weekend, sometimes connecting with people who “get it” helps ground you.
Cancer is just that: stupid. But it’s also so much more. The trick is finding the beauty between the biopsies and checkups. And in some ways, it becomes not so stupid at all.
The monster has given me the big family I always wanted. My roommate put it perfectly: “Now we have sisters and brothers.”
Editor’s Note: Victoria is also the author of the blog Breast Cancer at 30.