A survivor and her supporter recap Retreat Yourself British Columbia

June 26, 2013

IMG_7919[1]Caregivers and supporters don’t always recognize the impact supporting a young adult with cancer can have on their own lives. Hannah and Reggie attended Retreat Yourself British Columbia from May 30-June 3, 2013. Hannah recognized the need to connect with a community of young adults who “got it,” and Reggie agreed to go to support Hannah. Read on to see what they had to say about the experience.

Hannah – Survivor

“I just kept thinking to myself, ‘How have I not been doing this?’ It was so natural.”

I was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2002. I was treated with chemotherapy, full body radiation, and an unrelated bone marrow transplant. I relapsed in 2010 and received oral chemotherapy, numerous blood transfusions, and white cell infusions donated by my original donor. Through my long journey with leukemia, I have always had a very strong support system: close family, my friends, and a church family who cared and prayed for me. I thought I had all the support I needed.

Then, I heard about Retreat Yourself through a newsletter that I receive from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Upon looking through Young Adult Cancer Canada’s (YACC) website, I was eager to find out if I qualified for the Retreat, and how soon I could register. One of things that I really enjoyed about YACC’s program is that the supporters have support. I had no idea how good this was going to be for my husband; this was the first time he had been around other supporters like himself.

My expectation for this Retreat was to meet other people who have similar experiences in fighting cancer as a young adult. I had never connected with other young adults who were dealing with cancer. It was overwhelming to know that almost every person sitting in the room with you has battled—or is currently battling—some form of cancer. It was challenging to try and wrap my mind around the fact that everyone was so young, but had already experienced so much in life. I saw was strength in each person.

Each day at the Retreat consisted of A LOT of sharing, in small and large groups. I expected that. There was even sharing during the free time, and I loved it! It was emotionally draining, but I very much enjoyed the opportunity to share those moments. I just kept thinking to myself, “How have I not been doing this?” It was so natural. Everyone had freedom to speak and share, and no one was judged. People sat with you and nodded in agreement with everything that you shared because they understood! Jokes about having “chemo brain” and being challenged with short term memory were the norm; people in the room would laugh with you because, they too, knew what it’s like. I’ve never experienced that, and I still laugh about it now.

Aside from a lot of talking and sharing, the weekend also consisted of some free time. We had the option to take part in swimming, hiking, yoga, ukulele lessons (which we absolutely loved!), and arts and crafts. We were fed fabulously healthy, home-cooked meals. The retreat centre was comfortable and felt like a home away from home.

I was more than glad that I got to share that with my husband, and we drove away from the Retreat knowing we just experienced something very special and amazing! It was a very memorable weekend for the both of us, and getting to share this weekend with those we did is something we will remember and cherish. We wished that we could have taken everyone home with us.

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Reggie – Supporter

“Although we live the same life, my story was different from Hannah’s, and this weekend was very much an opportunity for me to tell it.”

I want to start off by saying I didn’t want anything to do with this weekend. There were many reasons, specifically my own social anxieties with meeting new people and not wanting to express myself emotionally to a group of strangers. I didn’t think we “needed it.” We were fine on our own. We were happy, safe, and secure in how we were dealing with this part of our lives, this “cancer part.”

Needless to say, I agreed to go. Hannah is very convincing, and I—a loving and supportive husband—want to encourage her. We talked about the pros and cons of going (wanting to connect, not feeling alone/having people understand what we are going through). In my mind there was only one reason: cancer. We have cancer. How else can I connect with strangers? That was our common ground, and I left it at that.

I started to feel nervous as the weekend drew nearer. My anxiety started to kick in while driving to Edenvale. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself. The not knowing and lack of control was almost overwhelming, and the beginning of the event was a blur. All I could hear was a small voice in my head saying, “Sit down and shut up; no one wants to hear from you. They are all here for Hannah. They are all here for the cancer patients.” I was totally okay with keeping silent. My role was very clear.

As we all settled into the opening circle, there were a few things that jumped out at me, the biggest one being “divide and conquer” (no sleeping in the same room as your partner, no being in the same small group). YACC made it clear that I was not going to be able to hide silently behind Hannah. This weekend was also for me (the supporter). Although we live the same life, my story was different from Hannah’s, and this weekend was very much an opportunity for me to tell it.

The other thing that stood out in the opening circle was a feeling; a willingness to instantly care and love one another. Strangers. Why wouldn’t they? We have all been impacted by a common event. That one phone call; that one heart breaking news that changed our lives forever.

This continued on through the rest of the weekend, both in small or large group sessions, music, art therapy, and especially during free time. People just wanted to be together. Everyone was ready and willing, not just to open up and share their story, but also ready to listen to mine. The common questions of who you are, where you came from, and where you were going, are echoed through conversations. A community was being formed, and at the heart of it were love, respect, and hope.

As we all entered the closing circle, I once again felt my anxiety kick in, not because I didn’t know what to expect, but because I didn’t know what to say. Trying to express what this weekend has done for us (like I’m doing now) seems overwhelming. Scanning the circle looking at the faces as we partake in the “rock trading” tradition, I really do feel as though we have gone on this journey together.

I didn’t want to be here, and now I don’t want to leave. Strangers, now friends. I was wrong in the beginning. Cancer didn’t connect us, hope did.

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Want an experience like Hannah and Reggie’s? There is still time to apply for Retreat Yourself Nova Scotia from July 11-15!

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