Whenever I go for a long period of time without writing I tend to avoid posting a blog. Not because I don't want to write... I have tons of things to say and share, but because there is just so much ground to cover, summarizing really quickly feels rushed and going into detail seems like a bunch of work.
A lot has happened in the last 4 weeks. And while I often day-dream about writing about recapping it, I also feel it is a bit overwhelming to go back. So I am thinking of dividing this up into a two-parter. I just decided that right now and I feel the weight lifting off of me.
So here goes.
Part 1: Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) - Retreat Yourself Alberta & Calgary Hangouts
Although the dizziness and vertigo lingered (and is still around), I felt much better from my cold/flu when we left for Alberta. Mike and I enjoyed the quick 1 hour flight into Calgary and were on the bus to our meeting place at the Holiday Inn in no time. There we met our future friends for the young adult cancer retreat. It was a fantastic group... fellow survivors, supporters, peer supporters and facilitators. All of us, equally as nervous, curious, hopeful and excited for what the 4-day experience might bring.
At first Mike and I didn't know what to expect. We knew we wouldn't be spending a lot of time on our own as we were being assigned roommates once we arrived at the Lake Louise Inn, but we had no idea how much each person and each day might impact us. From the small group settings where everyone spoke with raw vulnerability sharing their stories, to the large group activities, games and presentations given by some of the survivors. A lot of it was out of our comfort zones and I think that is what made the weekend so powerful for Mike and I. It challenged us to be bold and open up from the often tight lid we put on our bottled up emotions.
Each day everyone became more and more comfortable with each other and by the second evening it almost felt like we were one big family. We ate all of our meals together at two big long tables and each gathering there was this great sense of community. The feeling of belonging really hit me and I soon realized how much I had needed this face-to-face interaction with people who were young and dealing with cancer like I was. There really is nothing else like being in the presence of a group of people who have walked in similar shoes and just 'get it'. Especially when they are young like me!
Being surrounded with such an inspiring and courageous group was uplifting to say the least. There were definitely some more serious emotional moments and intense discussion but it was nicely balanced with the fun and humour that was brought to the group by so many of the participants. We even had a talent show on the last night in which we were all highly entertained. The last to present, my friend Robin and I sang while I played piano. (First time doing something like that - The weekend made me feel extra brave! An added bonus!)
My hopes for this retreat had been to connect, make new friends and come home feeling lighter. I can quite happily say that all three of those things happened, and then some. Not only did I meet some great people, but their stories helped me understand more about my own. And with some of the key discussion groups we had on topics such as relationship changes, recurrence fears, coping and finding the "new normal" (also known as reintrajectorization! Yes, there is a word for that!), both Mike and I really were able to feel free to share and be ourselves. There was also arts and crafts time where we all made something creative around the reintrajectorization subject. Here's what Mike and I came up with...
One thing I didn't see coming: I had no thought in my mind that Mike and I could have grown any closer and surprisingly this retreat did just that for us. For me, it was seeing him toss away the tough shell and watching him let loose, interact and express himself. I felt so proud of him the last day during our closing ceremony of the retreat. To see him sharing so openly with people made my heart so full. And to hear that his words had impacted others really was more than I could have hoped for him.
We both left Lake Louise with some take homes... I felt a clearer direction in life, I felt lighter, connected and hopeful. You could even say I feel more determined... (Thank you Andrew for that word). For Mike, he learned about honesty and communication. And I think for both of us, hearing the sides of both survivors and supporters each day, we both have a more compassionate point of view for what the other person faces.
As the final day approached and we all parted and went our separate ways a feeling of sadness overcame me. I was totally going to miss these awesome people. This experience and the friends we made will always be kept close to my heart forever. Having the retreat end was like coming home from camp as a kid and having to go back to your usual routine where no one around you understood what kind of fun you had just had. Mike and I both felt the retreat withdrawal. So at least we were in it together. I worried that we were going to be in too much of a reflective mood when we got back to Calgary and met my high school friend Phil... I wasn't sure I was going to be up for much chit chat, but fortunately Phil totally understood and Mike and I were able to share and look back on the weekend without boring him too much.
The retreat feeling lasted as we spent 2 nights in Calgary with Phil, who I will totally add right now, is thee most amazing photographer ever. Ridiculously talented this guy is! See here and here (our engagement shoot he did for us last year).
Phil showed us some cool spots in Calgary and the city really pleasantly surprised us both. Lots of young people, a lot of hoppin' brewhouses (which Mike loved), tons of opportunity and a fairly friendly vibe. I especially liked 17th avenue's cafés, restaurants and bars. There was always something going on and even on a week night places were packed. Being with Phil also felt like we were with someone famous because he doesn't go anywhere without running into a slew of people. I think that's why Calgary seemed so friendly to us too... There was always someone somewhere to say hi to and meet.
While we were in Calgary I also got to meet up with a few cancer buddies I had met online. The lovely Ashley who is a fellow breast cancer survivor and my Instagram friend Sue and her cute miniature pet pig Hammy. I love meeting other survivors in person for the first time. Social media has been a great outlet for me when it comes to connecting with others facing cancer, but meeting people in person is always so much better. And when I do get the opportunity to meet an online cancer friend in person, I almost feel as if they are a celebrity. Really excited and just so stoked to finally see them in real life. You feel like you know them already but then you meet them in person there's almost a funny feeling of butterflies when you see the face you only usually see on your tiny iPhone.
We were also lucky to squeeze in a coffee date with my cousin Brittany who moved from Ontario to Calgary a few years ago. We hadn't seen each other in about 4 years so it was great to catch up.
Our Alberta tripped was sure packed... but it was so rewarding and fun. Leaving Phil's place was hard because we had really gotten quite cozy in his place and enjoyed the laid back living. Phil is a great host and Mike and I really enjoyed how chill the 3 days were. I was also going to miss his neighbour's sweet little dog Momo. Cutest little thing ever.
Going home wasn't one of those usual trips back to your own city where you get on the plane and just want to get there. No, I wasn't really looking forward to getting back to Vancouver. I was too busy thinking about how awesome everything had just been but now how I was going to be facing the rest of my reconstructive surgery the next day. At least we had the distraction of visiting with Mamka back in Vancouver to keep my mind off of it until the next morning though. But really, I was still totally basking in the glow of our Retreat Yourself 'high' and that was almost enough to keep me from worrying too much the night before the surgery... Ahhh surgery... I will save that story for part 2.
Before I sign off completely though, I want to mention some stuff about Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) for any eligible young Canadian cancer peeps who might be reading this blog...
Retreat Yourself BC, I hear, is booked up but Retreat Yourself Nova Scotia is this July... check that out. And Retreat Yourself Adventure (with zip-lining!) in Newfoundland is in August... check that out here. Even if you don't live in those provinces you can still apply and get assistance with your flights. Mike and I didn't have to pay a thing as we had some help from YACC donors and a few other very generous donations, which was awesome! Also... there is a Young Adult Cancer Conference in Toronto this Fall which sounds pretty cool. For more information about YACC and their awesomeness, go here: www.youngadultcancer.ca
YACC really is helping so many of us youngins who have been forced to deal with cancer. So thankful to have been put in touch with them and to have experienced such an amazing retreat with a fabulous group of people! I feel so grateful for the opportunity.