“For the rest of my life, I’m a YACC-er”

August 14, 2012

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Wow! Another incredible Retreat experience happened July 19-23, 2012 at Cabot Shores in beautiful Cape Breton. We brought 22 young adult survivors, four supporters, and a strong team of peer supporters and professional facilitators together for four days of community-building.

Because the flight options to Cape Breton are limited, many retreaters were on the same flights and many arrived on Wednesday night. We helped put people in touch with each other beforehand so they could share taxis and start to get acquainted before the official start of the retreat. I think this was a huge asset to the group dynamic! Instead of meeting 35 strangers all at once, people were able to get to know each other in small groups and there was a noticeable level of comfort and familiarity by the time we arrived at Cabot Shores.

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Let’s just chat about Cabot Shores for a few moments, shall we? Cabot Shores is a wilderness resort nestled on 55 acres of beautiful property. Surrounded by the ocean, a lake, a brook, and beautiful forest, it was built by Barbara and Paul—a dynamic duo from the US—as “a place for rest and renewal along life’s journey.” Their philosophy was very clearly aligned with YACC’s, which made this a great partnership. The motto for Cabot Shores is “Awaken. Explore. Discover.” which is very much what we aim to facilitate through our Retreats!

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Retreaters and facilitators stayed in beautiful chalets or in the main lodge. After everyone had settled into their rooms, we had a delicious and nutritious supper. With bellies full, we officially began the Retreat experience. After warm welcomes and an overview of the weekend, we had our Opening Circle, where everyone had a turn to introduce themselves and share a little bit of their stories.

People were very open and trusting and caring of one another from the very beginning; it was very touching to observe. I always find the Opening Circle one of the most powerful experiences within the retreat. To have all of these people sitting in one room who have experienced so many challenges at a young age, who have been forced to face and accept realities that were never expected, and who demonstrate such incredible strength of spirit and perseverance—it truly is a rare and privileged human experience to be surrounded by such powerful company.

On Friday morning, many people started the day with an outdoor Chi Gong session with Barbara. After breakfast, we had our first small group discussion. The topic was “relationships” as determined through a voting activity the previous night. People were encouraged to chat about family, romantic partnerships, friendships, or any relationships that were affected by their cancer diagnosis. Two of the “pearls of wisdom” that came from these discussions included the following:

  1. Be brave enough to communicate authentically; and,
  2. Not everyone can be everything, but everyone can be something.

 

Following the small group discussion, we had a group acupuncture session with Barbara from Cabot Shores. Barbara is a nurse and a trained acupuncturist. While we sat in a large circle, Barbara came along and put needles in our ears at specific points that are related to reducing stress. Although some people opted out, most of us chose to participate. After she completed the circle, we sat and meditated for a while and it was very peaceful. Once the needles were taken out, I felt a strong wave of relaxation—a very neat experience!

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After lunch, we had two hours of free time. There were lots of outdoor activities to enjoy, including swimming, canoeing, kayaking, yolo boarding, and hiking. Several of us went on a “Warrior Walk,” led by Barbara, which is meant to encourage mindfulness and an awakening of the senses. We walked in silence through the beautiful scenery and when we reached the water, she led us through an energetic warrior cry from the Shambhala Buddhist tradition designed to rouse a sense of uplifted dignity. “Ki Ki! So So! Lha Gyal Lo! Tak Seng Kyung Druk Di Yar Kye!”  Even though we stumbled over the foreign words, I think we all felt uplifted! We ended things with a fun chant from laughter yoga: “Very good. Very good. Yay!!!” Good times.

Before supper, we had our second small group discussion on “emotional health and wellbeing.” As anyone who has experienced cancer can attest to, the emotional consequences of this diagnosis can be just as intense, if not more so than the physical consequences. Several pearls of wisdom emerged from this discussion, including:

  1. “What you resist persists.” It is very important to acknowledge difficult emotions, such as fear and anger. Many of us may tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t” feel a certain way, or we may simply feel overwhelmed if we really sit and think about how scared we are. However, if we ignore these very normal feelings, they probably won’t just disappear.
  2. “Self care is not selfish.” This ties into a discussion about how important it is to set our own boundaries to support our emotional health and wellbeing.

 

After a tasty supper, we had the pleasure of watching two of our Peer Supporters, Duncan and Dawn, give presentations on their cancer journeys. It was wonderful to get a more in-depth look at how all their experiences and the way they’ve chosen to process them have helped to shape them into the amazing people they are today: strong, yet vulnerable; gentle, yet feisty; and incredibly compassionate and dedicated to using their experiences to help others move forward on their paths. It was clear that different people in the audience connected with different parts of Duncan’s and Dawn’s stories. I think it really helps to provide hope and inspiration when you hear how someone else has struggled with similar things, yet has found a way to accept and move forward, which is why we include these presentations in our program.

We wrapped up the evening with a full group discussion. A couple people shared that they were feeling overwhelmed and wanted to leave. This honesty was appreciated and accepted by the group, without anyone trying to convince these people that they shouldn’t feel that way. I thought this demonstrated a high level of maturity and respect and reflected the pearl of wisdom from earlier in the day, “What you resist persists.” It was important to acknowledge and accept this feeling without trying to chase it away. This discussion also included a spontaneous (and beautiful) poetry reading, several profound comments from a Retreater which earned her the nickname of “Buddha,” and a huge group hug.

Saturday morning kicked off with an optional outdoor yoga session with Barbara. After breakfast, we had our third small group discussion on “fear of recurrence.” This is an intense topic, but also very important to address. One of the pearls of wisdom was “I am me. I don’t have to fall into statistics or compare myself to others.” This made me think of a couple things Geoff said at Survivor Conference 2011:

  1. “Statistics are historic, not predictive”; and,
  2. 1 per cent is not 0 per cent.

 

Good things to remember, especially if you receive a difficult prognosis.

On Saturday morning, we also had a healthy living session on anxiety. Two of our facilitators—a psychologist and social worker—discussed the physiological side of anxiety and helped to normalize anxiety as a natural and normal response to cancer. This was followed by practical tips for coping with anxiety and a breathing exercise.

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Saturday afternoon, we had more free time and more enjoyment of outdoor activities. Several people jumped in the Atlantic Ocean, which was a little chilly, but refreshing! Several people also had individual acupuncture sessions with Barbara. After free time, we had an art therapy session which involved the creation of Vision Boards. Vision boards are a way to concretely create and envision your future as you wish it to unfold. People did a beautiful job with their vision boards and I loved to see all of the creativity.

After supper we had our final small group discussion on “reintrajectorization,” which is a YACC phrase that refers to moving on and redefining a new normal. One pearl of wisdom that emerged was “Your future doesn’t have to mean years from now. It can start today,” which emphasizes the value of taking one day at a time. Another pearl was “Sometimes you don’t have to plan; you just have to participate in life,” which really reflects the principle of mindfulness and living in the present moment. Finally, one small group said that moving on is a lot like packing a bag. You have to look at all the stuff in your life and decide what you want to keep and what you want to leave behind. Sometimes you may regret the things you leave behind, but in the end, it’s better to not have such a heavy bag to haul around on your journey. So true!

Saturday night we had Game Night and free time. While the facilitators had a meeting upstairs, we could hear lots of activity downstairs, which turned out to be rehearsals for some awesome talent show performances for the following night!

On Sunday morning, we started things off with survivor presentations by our other two Peer Supporters, Brandon and Nicole. Similar to Duncan and Dawn, they delivered their stories with grace and strength and the audience was clearly affected by power of their lived experiences. After these presentations, Karine delivered an overview of young adult cancer issues in Canada, as well as YACC’s programs and resources.

After lunch we had our closing circle. Along with opening circle, this is always one of my most favorite parts of our Retreats. We traded rocks of affirmation with one another, which is such a beautiful way to fill up our hearts and give us the courage and motivation to keep pushin’ forward on our paths once we return home. We got our T-shirts, signed the banner, and posed outside for our group shots as the sun set in the background.

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After supper, we had our grand finale, which consisted of a talent show and a slideshow. Our talent show can fall anywhere along the continuum between totally silly and genuinely jaw-dropping talent. This year was a great mix of both. We had storytelling; singing; dancing; flute-, accordian-, guitar- and ukulele-playing; group participation activities (sing-alongs and a giant Cinnamon Bun Hug); YouTube videos; and more! I would have to say that the highlight for the group was the creation and delivery of our retreat theme song, “At Cancer Camp.” Funny, yet heartwarming (and surprisingly catchy!), this song really captured the bonding that happened at RYE12. A huge thanks to Russell and Brandon for their creativity and leadership on this one!

Finally, our talent show also included a recitation of cancer limericks by our Peer Supporter, Duncan Pike. Duncan has a true gift of taking cancer-related experiences and turning them into hilarious (and sometimes x-rated) limericks!

In a shout-out to Duncan, I will finish off this blog with one of his limericks created special for RYE12:

Like a 300-pound linebacker

I’m a fierce and determined YACC-backer

Since Retreat-Yourself West

You’ve all been the best

For the rest of my life, I’m a YACCer

A huge and heart-felt thank you to all the retreaters, facilitators, peer supporters, YACC staff, Cabot Shores, donors, and community partners for making Retreat Yourself East 2012 such an unforgettable experience!

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