By Kathy Stock
A few months ago, new friend and cool guy, Geoff Eaton told me I should go to one of YACC’s (Young Adult Cancer Canada) retreats. It would be an opportunity to connect with other survivors and a great way to keep putting one foot in front of the other in life after cancer. I came up with every excuse in the book–all of which were valid. Childcare would be an issue. Jason wouldn’t be able to get time off work to come with me and even if he could, we couldn’t afford two plane tickets to TO. We couldn’t really afford one plane ticket to TO.
Still, Geoff said, “Just fill out the application and see what happens.”
I started filling it out–got all the way to the bottom and it asked for my MCP health card number–but that was aaaaaaalllll the way across the room. So, I clicked the red button in the top left hand corner.
I saw Geoff shortly after this failed attempt to apply and told him what I did. I could see that in the kindest way possible, he was holding himself back from grabbing my shoulders and shaking some sense into me.
“Just…seriously…fill out the application and see what happens.”
I could sense his urgency and although every fiber of my flesh was fighting against it, my spirit was compelling me to do it. It was that inner war. I didn’t want to go yet simultaneously I did want to go, because I knew I had to.
I filled out the application.
Then, something amazing happened. My husband got a new job–one with an amazing schedule, understanding bosses and peers and unlimited vacation days. Then, out of the blue, YACC contacts us and said, “An anonymous donor wants to send you and your husband to the retreat. Expenses paid.”
Then, my parents, without any hesitation, step up and say, “We would love to watch the boys while you’re gone. Don’t worry about it.”
Every excuse blasted out of the water. I believe in some coincidences but this, my friends, was meant to be.
We flew out Thursday morning, arrived in TO and took a taxi downtown to the WellSpring office where the retreaters were meeting. I entered the room and sat in a chair quietly while people chatted around me. They were my family for the next four days. We headed off to Cobourg, Ontario, a quaint country town with a beautiful retreat centre, Northumberland Heights, that we would call home for the next little while.
The retreat centre was beautiful. A holistic place, dedicated to rest and wellness. We were assigned rooms and unpacked. As we walked down the hallway, we noticed the main room where a circle of chairs were arranged and there were about 10 boxes of tissues placed strategically around. Jay and I noticed this simultaneously and looked at each other.
Uh-oh. We’re not the “feelings circle” kind. We both panicked a little.
The first night, we all sat around and shared our names and situations. Some were survivors of cancer for many years. Most were survivors for less than 12-18 months. Many were still battling and in incredibly scary situations. I listened to story after story of raw bravery and gut wrenching emotion, and I realized once again the gravity of cancer. I think as part of my own coping mechanism, I downgrade the severity of what I went through and as I listened to stories of people whose bodies are ridden with cancer–stage 4 disease, brain tumors, and metastases. I was rocked. I had put myself in a position to befriend people that are very, very ill and the crazy thing is, for most of them, you couldn’t tell they were by looking at them. They didn’t look like “cancer,” and they were young. Really, really young.
This brought me to a new found place of not judging a book by its cover. Be kind to everyone you meet because their battles are not always evident and their struggles may be bigger than their ability to respond to you in the “right” way.
Thursday night was hard. Not gonna lie. I wondered if I was in the right place–if I had even earned my right to sit amongst such pillars of bravery and seek help from them in my quest to move onward and upward. Had I a vehicle and a close address, I may have found a reason to creep away.
Thank God I was stuck.
The next several days brought about some of the most beautiful I have ever experienced. Since the beginning of my cancer journey 15 months ago, I have never felt as safe to speak my mind and be my real, authentic self as I did in that group. It was so, unbelievably safe, and they got “it,” they “got me,” and I “got them.”
We were able to speak in large and small groups about how cancer has affected our relationships with others. Lots of wounded and broken families. Cancer attacks more than a body, and more than one person. We empathized with our loved ones and their confusion and helplessness in wanting to do and say the right thing. We were able to admit our anger and frustrations to one another. A lot of us felt as though people judged us for having cancer in the first place–as though people assume you must have eaten something or worn something or done something to cause your illness–and now suddenly you feel shame for eating meat, enjoying a diet beverage once in a while or owning a microwave. It’s exhausting to be physically ill while feeling shame, anger and sadness at the same time. It was a relief to share that with others who could honestly say, “I know exactly how you feel.”
We also talked about fear of recurrence. The first five years after having cancer are up in the air. Will you be lucky enough to have those cancer cells completely obliterated or will they return? What will life look like? Will we grow old? Sharing with other people–some of them between 18 and 21 years old–about mortality at a young age, was both terrifying and comforting. Both Jay and I gained a lot of perspective about that, how we need to not live in denial but proceed forward, cautiously optimistic.
We talked about moving forward, about how to help each other, about expectations of ourselves and others, and we laughed like crazy. Seriously. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long, long time. I have also forged life long friendships that have both depth and authenticity in a matter of four days. Some of the people I met have very advanced cancer, and meeting them was well worth it. I am honored to be a part of their lives in the midst of their struggle, whatever that means in the long run.
“Cancer Camp”–as my husband so hilariously referred to it as while yelling at people, “THERE’S NO CRYING AT CANCER CAMP!”–was life changing. It has literally changed so much about my perspective on the world around me and, let me just say, I have a brand new level of respect for the man I married after this weekend. He submerged himself amongst a group of people he had never met, as someone who hasn’t personally had to deal with cancer in his own body, but he led and inspired and taught and listened and evolved and gave back in such a way that the retreat would not have been the same without him. He was open and honest and motivational, and other than music therapy (during which time the therapist said, “find a comfortable place to sit” and he proceeded to exit the room and sit out on the deck), he was actively engaged in every element of the retreat, both fun and heavy.
At the end of the retreat, we all picked rocks at random with each others names written on them and we had to write something on the rock and give it to the person we chose. I actually picked my own husband, and on his rock I wrote, “I am the luckiest because I have you.”
On the last night, we had a talent show. It was fun and moving and beautiful. I was lucky enough to be able to share my song “Overcome” with the group. Such an honor. Humbling, to say the least.
I cannot thank YACC enough for the incredible job they did facilitating this experience. I cannot express enough how thankful I am to have met the people I can now call friends, and as far as I wanted to run from cancer while I was in it, I will be a member of this Young Adult Cancer Canada community for as long as they’ll have me because I want to give back in whatever way I can.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
And don’t forget to plug in your bowl of puppy oatmeal (inside joke).
This post has been reposted with the permission of Kathy Stock; visit her website, The Life And Times Of Kathy Stock, for the full post.
Read her husband, Jason’s, Retreat Yourself Ontario 2014 recap