About a week and half ago, I attended the C4YW (annual Conference for Young Women affected by breast cancer). Held in Bellevue, only three hours north of here, it was the first time in its 13-year conference history it took place on the west coast. The event is co-hosted by Young Survival Coalition and Living Beyond Breast Cancer. Imagine more than 600 people gathered together with one commonality: all diagnosed with breast cancer before 45.
C4YW consisted of three days jammed packed full of education, guidance, support, inspiration, fun and reality. As a T-shirt there proclaimed, “Initiation sucks. Sisterhood is forever.” Here’s a great newspaper article written about the conference that includes an attendee’s story.
One of my favorite (and one of the most emotional) moments was at the Dance & Dessert party on Saturday night when everyone jumped up to dance to “I Will Survive.” I’ve danced to this song countless times… I love it. But, this was the first time I danced to it with a lump in my throat as I gazed across the floor at all of my survivor sisters – all with huge smiles on their faces, some bald, some 10-years post-diagnosis, some fatigued, some with limited mobility (like me), some dancing like they’ve never danced before, some belting out the lyrics at the top of their lungs (also like me).
Go on now, go walk out the door
Just turn around now’
cause you’re not welcome anymore
Weren’t you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye
Did you think I’d crumble
Did you think I’d lay down and die
Oh no, not I, I will survive
Oh as long as I know how to love
I know I will stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
I’ve got all my love to give
And I’ll survive
I will survive (hey-hey)
It was pretty awesome. Very inspiring. Extremely empowering. But, there’s a catch… not all of us will survive. And that was the reality looming over the conference as we discussed the latest treatments, survival stats and moving forward after cancer. The truth is, recurrence and mortality rates of breast cancer are highest among people in my age group – diagnosed before menopause. We were reminded of this as we passed by the huge remembrance board of young sisters who have passed, sisters that I never got a chance to meet, sisters that previously danced to “I Will Survive” at conferences.
I don’t tell you this to depress you, or have you think I’m dying. They got all of the cancer in my last surgery, and I’m doing all the right things and everything that I can to live a long, healthy life. I’m sharing it with you to educate. Because often times with breast cancer, when it’s not a terminal diagnosis, people downplay it and say things like, “It’s the easy cancer to treat.” Or, “It’s good that you’re young and healthy.” The problem is that it doesn’t matter; cancer doesn’t discriminate, especially once you’re diagnosed. Those brave women who passed away also did all they could to survive. The reality is that a recurrence can happen to any of us; cancer WILL come back to some and I might not see those people next year at C4YW in Orlando.
One of the things I took away from the conference is that people diagnosed with breast cancer before menopause are dealing with a completely different cancer – it should almost be called something else entirely. It’s “A Different Enemy” as the Young Survival Coalition’s site states: “More and more evidence tells us that breast cancer before age 40 differs biologically from the cancer faced by older women.” And there’s an increase in metastatic breast cancer in my age group too. Read “Enough Already! An Urgent Mandate for Breast Cancer Prevention” from this week’s Huffington Post about this rate increase and the author’s demand for more risk-reduction strategies.
Speaking of prevention, there’s a great organization called the Breast Cancer Fund, which I discovered at the conference. Two women from this organization spoke in a session with all of the conference attendees present. The Breast Cancer Fund works to prevent breast cancer by eliminating our exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation linked to the disease. Instead of working to find a cure, they fund research for the many environmental causes linked to breast cancer and advocate for the public by holding our government and corporations accountable. Be sure to check out their great website about how to detoxify your home. For instance, we all know about BPA (Bisphenol A, a synthetic estrogen) in water bottles and baby bottles, but did you know it is in the liner of canned food? I didn’t. At the conference, the women from Breast Cancer Fund talked about trying to get the government and food industry to change can production; but instead of just asking to remove the BPA, they will work on trying to find out what the alternative would be and make sure that its replacement is not a carcinogen either. By the way, here are the top 10 canned foods to avoid – it may surprise you.
The C4YW break out sessions at I attended were all fantastic, led by experts in the respective field and were very helpful: Healthy Eating After Breast Cancer, Sex & Intimacy, Coping With Your Losses, and Fear of Recurrence. There was an exhibit hall with interesting booths, where I got a free henna tattoo (you should have seen the women with bald heads covered in beautiful henna designs – wish I would have thought of that during chemo!) At night, we bonded over dinner, danced the night away, and sang at the piano bar of the hotel. I carpooled with some Portland women and met others from our region. We all shared the same baseline to our story… a breast cancer diagnosis. So, conversation started easily, and connections and hugs were easy to come by.
With all the facts, figures and opinions – and the late nights with cancer sisters – I felt purely exhausted by the end of the weekend and needed a full day of recovery afterwards. Yet, it was worth it. I was so grateful to be able to talk about all of these topics with women like me – women who understand what I’m going through. You – my phenomenal supporters – have been amazing; one speaker pointed to a study that said patients with a great support system have a better chance at survival (so, THANK YOU!). Yet, it is a lonely journey when you’re the only one you know your age who is dealing with breast cancer, the treatments, the surgeries, the side effects. This conference, as well as a local support group for young survivors, made me realize (with both relief and sadness) that I’m not alone in going through this. There is a young survivor sisterhood that exists for me now and always. “Initiation sucks. Sisterhood is forever.”