“Breast cancer is a life long journey, but so are the friendships.” – Jen Merschdorf, fearless leader, YSC.
Last weekend, I went to the YSC Summit in Austin, a three-day conference put on by the Young Survival Coalition for young women diagnosed with breast cancer between the ages of 18 and 40 along with their co-survivors. A place that I’ve been able to connect with hundreds of other young survivors while learning more about managing this disease and the side effects that I still struggle with on the daily. There were 677 people in attendance this year, mostly based out of the United States but is was amazing to see women attending internationally from Japan, Poland, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, and a few of us Canadians as well. To be in this room again with people who just get it.
The YSC Summit has always felt near and dear to my heart. Two years ago, I was fresh out of treatment and felt so lost and afraid. I was no longer wrapped in this security blanket of active treatment and as soon as all the bells had stopped ringing, the celebration and support had begun to fizzle out. I didn’t know how to relate to others. I didn’t know how to navigate this new normal. Suddenly going from being monitored 24/7 to being left flopping around like a fish out of water.
Then I heard about the YSC Summit from a couple girls I followed on the ‘gram. I wasn’t sure whether I should go. I didn’t know anyone there. And I can be incredibly shy among groups of people I don’t know. I was stepping WAY out of my comfort zone doing something like this but I brought my husband along for support and it was honestly the best decision I made. I felt welcomed. I felt inspired. I met some of the women who had helped me so much through my own journey and inspired me to share my own. But most importantly, I no longer felt alone.
I went back for a second time in Orlando last year and decided to travel on my own, stepping just a bit (ok a lot a bit!) out of my comfort zone and reached out to my friend Anna who set me up with a couple roomies. A lot had happened in the year since I attended my first summit in Oakland. A bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction surgeries, and one more on the horizon. I was excited to be there and nervous as I awaited my fourth surgery but being surrounded by these women was just what I needed. I grew closer friendships, made new ones, and felt so embraced and understood by everyone.
I was pumped when I found out the next one would be in Austin since I’d never been to Texas before and was already planning on how to make it happen again. So, a year later, I headed back for my third time and found myself thinking back how much had changed. I just finished the last of my surgeries a couple months ago. I’m back to work. I’m getting weened off of my regular check ups at the cancer clinic and finally feel like I am a little further out in my recovery (even though some days I feel like I’m still in the thick of it). And it was one of those moments where I sat back reflecting on being on the other side now…from freshly out of chemo and radiation my first year to being years out of treatment and thriving.
It made my heart so full seeing others attending for their first time too. To see them building new friendships, meeting each other IRL after messaging for months through Facebook and the ‘gram, and hearing their excitement made me smile so much all weekend. At one point when they asked the room how many were first timers, it blew me away. Saddened that so many more young women are having to go through this, but also so proud of them for taking that nerve-wracking step to come and say okay I’m doing this! No matter what age, stage, or diagnosis, it was so inspiring to see these women surviving, thriving and living their best lives beyond breast cancer. Social media has been a powerful tool in connecting us together, but to meet in real life and finally get to squeeze each one of them was the best.
I also brought my husband Josh back with me this time. The co-survivors having specialized sessions of their own on things like breast cancer 101, managing appointments, owning their own feelings through all this, and being able to connect with other partners, family members, friends that have had to go through this all with us. I often get asked if I would recommend bringing a significant other or going on your own and honestly I think either is great and it really comes down to what makes you feel comfortable. It was nice to have him there my first year not knowing anyone else around me. But it was good to go the second time on my own and be able to step out and immerse myself amongst this incredible group of women.
Throughout the conference, there were breakout sessions with speakers like Julie Larson on the fear of recurrence, hitting the nail on the head every time with her powerful words. A writing workshop with April from Wildfire magazine and learning how to write from the heart and acknowledge that although we are all in this together, our stories are so different and unique to us too. Learning about getting our sexy back after cancer with Dr. Dizon and finding intimacy again beyond the treatments, surgeries and side effects of cancer. As well as having breakout sessions on things like fertility and pregnancy, clean beauty, massage, and advancements in hormone positive, triple negative and metastatic breast cancer. To look around the room in each one of the sessions and see all of the heads nodding, so many other women relating to everything I was going through too, was so powerful.
Aside from all of the amazing people, the speakers and sessions though, the summit offered a place of hope. Sometimes it can be hard to think of the future and to see the light at the end of the tunnel through all this. But to see women celebrating 5, 10, and 20 years of survivorship was so inspiring and encouraging for not only myself but for others who are in the thick of it. To see women who have gotten pregnant after going through months of chemo, treatments and surgeries. Women who are thriving with metastatic breast cancer and giving so much hope to others in the MBC community. Women who are saying I am more than my diagnosis.
After an amazing weekend of introductions, ice breakers, breakout sessions, and seeing hundreds of survivors, vendors and healthcare providers getting up on the dance floor and shaking their thang at the Wild West dance party, the hardest part was having to say goodbye. I’ve met so many lifelong friends through this and made a regular thing of our 6 month meet ups because one year is just way too long! And always leave with a full heart and feeling inspired to keep moving ahead knowing that I’m not alone. Until next time YSC! Thanks for another year of amazing memories!