MaryAnne’s memories from her first Retreat Yourself

July 18, 2011

imageI was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer (a different kind in each breast) in March of 2009. I was 35 at the time and completely in shock about the diagnosis. I read everything I could get my hands on, from medical books and studies to memoirs about the breast cancer experience. Each little piece of information helped, but I couldn’t get past a sense of missing pieces. No matter how much I read, I never felt truly prepared for the journey. And it really seemed, according to the accounts of breast cancer that I read, that I wasn’t quite on the same page as the women I was reading about. It was hard to put my finger on, but it was unsettling.

When I tried my first support group it was a bit of a shock. I was the youngest person there! All the other women were in their late 50s or 60s. I felt out of place and awkward. They were sympathetic and kind, but their issues were so different from mine. They were so horrified that I had breast cancer so young that I kind of felt like some kind of medical anomaly. I didn’t go back.

Then I learned about Young Adult Cancer Canada’s Retreat Yourself program. I applied the second I found out about it (especially when I learned it wouldn’t cost me anything!) and was overjoyed when I got accepted. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I just kept remembering that first support group and how awful it felt. I was sure that the Retreat had to be better than that group!

When I got to the meeting place and began to see all the other people arriving as well, I felt unsure and a bit scared. I wondered if I had just signed myself up for several days of feeling like I didn’t belong once again. I tried to chat with people and introduce myself, but I was still uneasy.

It wasn’t until the second morning of the retreat when the whole group was being led through some simple meditation techniques to learn how to quiet the mind that I had a major breakthrough.

I was sitting there trying so hard to meditate. I was using all my concentration and feeling more and more panicked that it wasn’t working for me. I just couldn’t let go! Suddenly I felt awful. Here I was in a wonderful place surrounded by great people and opportunities to learn and grow and I was blowing it! I started to see myself messing up my whole Retreat by not trying hard enough and somehow not learning enough. I felt like a failure! I was so disappointed in myself for wasting this opportunity. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there in that feeling for a minute and tried once again to empty my mind. A quiet thought drifted into all those whirling emotions. There is no wrong way to do this. I thought, huh? What was that? There is no wrong way to do this. There is no wrong way to do this. I sat with that for a moment to let it sink in. And it hit me. There was no wrong way to do this Retreat!  All I needed to do was be there! Well I could do that! I was already at the Retreat, and that was half the battle! I felt my mind start to relax and I began to feel how wonderful it was to sit in a room full of other young adults who just accepted me.

The rest of the Retreat was wonderful! I gained two life-changing things from that Retreat:

I really started to understand how hard I always was on myself, as if being hard on myself could somehow protect me and make me successful in life. I suddenly knew I didn’t want to do that to myself anymore. If I couldn’t be nice to myself during the cancer journey, when could I be nice to myself?

The second thing I gained was community. That Retreat showed me just how lonely I was before. I made so many wonderful friends! And the practice I gained at making new friends helped me to continue to reach out once I returned home. I went from being truly isolated in my cancer experience to being surrounded by people (both in Vancouver and over the Internet) who understood what I was going through because they were going through it too.

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