When I was diagnosed with cancer at 26, I very quickly became aware that I was one of the few "young ones", lost in the gap between children and the more commonly diagnosed older adult. Everything about the weeks and months that followed that initial "you have cancer" diagnosis was foreign, frightening and bizarre. I was surrounded by an incredible support network of family and friends but there wasn't anyone that I could reach out to that could understand what I was going through.
A girlfriend (not so) gently pushed me to attend a course titled "Living with Cancer" being held by the Nelson Cancer Society. I felt really unsure about going and because it was being held in the evenings, I was unsure whether I would even have the energy to do it. Still, I figured if it didn't suit my husband and I, I could always be a cancer course drop-out, so we signed up and I'm sure glad we did.
My husband I were late to show up for the first session as we had a conflicting appointment, so we made our way in quietly and sat at the back. As I scanned the room, I saw the faces of people clearly in the middle of their treatment schedule, and their loving partners sitting beside them, the lines of months of worry written across their faces. My gaze stopped when it landed on a beautiful young woman, blond hair, kind face and healthy looking skin. Questions raced through my mind, I couldn't focus on the course because my mind kept wandering back to this young woman. I wanted to know her story, what had brought her to this course tonight? She didn't look like she had cancer...
Over the following 5 sessions, we all slowly got to know each other. (After the course finished, we actually have continued meeting for years affectionately called the "cancer club").
And that blondie, named Jacinda, was not only gorgeous on the outside, she was beautiful on the inside too. Jacinda had recently completed treatment for bowel cancer, and although herself finished, she made a point of being there for me through all my ups and downs. During the course of my treatment and after, Jacinda and I would meet regularly for coffee and a chance to catch up. Having another young woman that had gone through treatment (with a child, no less) was an immeasurable comfort. She understood my complaints and my concerns. She knew what it meant to face your own mortality and imagine a world where your children may have to grow up without you. She understood that chemotherapy takes your memory, and leaves you feeling like the energy has been sucked out of you. She got me in a way no other person could during that period of my life. And she gave me the confidence to reach out to other young people with cancer.
Through the power of the internet and groups like Young Survivors on facebook I have contact with many more young people and I enjoy having the ability to offer up some experience and a kind word to others walking the same path I did just a few years ago.
But the BEST part, is meeting other people in person and now I do it regularly. Sitting in a cafe waiting to meet a complete stranger to share a coffee often feels like I'm going on a blind date. It starts with looking around nervously, wondering if I will be able to recognise them from their description or facebook photo. I normally figure out who I'm meant to meet by locating the person walking into the cafe with a look on their face that seems to mirror the way I'm feeling. An awkward introduction, drink order and then we sit down to chat. I'm always amazed at how easily the conversation seems to flow. There is a comfort in connecting with someone that can understand where you are and where you've been. It is so reassuring to find another person who gets your quirky (and often inappropriate!) cancer jokes, or knows that you desperately still want to live but never want to have to show up for another check-up in your lifetime.
It seems crazy to think that the rogue cells from my body that launched an assault on my health are the same reason I have the opportunity to meet so many incredible people. And the people that are now in my life because I once had cancer are the most precious gift to come out of that period of my life.
If you have the chance to reach out to a stranger going through something like you are or have had before, I would encourage you to give it a shot. Go on a blind date!! You never know what a coffee with a stranger may grow into. Not everyone will be a new best friend but each person has their own unique gifts and experiences to give, and so do you.