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Guelph Mercury Editorial

Breast cancer conference has youthful spirit

Sue Richards - October 16, 2004

The woman beside me did bear a striking resemblance to celebrity Gloria Estefan, so I understood why she won the look-a-like contest. We arrived on the Sage Bistro balcony at the same time, needing fresh air. A balmy breeze, laced with sweet floral scents, carried the sound of waves washing up on Wreck Beach below.

"Gloria" and I watch through the massive glass doors as dozens of women pack the dance floor, prancing and gyrating to I Will Survive, arms waving madly in the air. I could have been at the Bullring or any downtown Guelph bar on a Saturday. Instead, I am in Vancouver at a breast cancer networking event called The Young and the Breastless.

I can't say I've ever danced at a breast cancer conference before. Nor have I done yoga, art workshops or sing-a-longs. But this event is intentionally different. Created for young women, by young women, there is a freshness and vitality that honestly reflects the people whom it is designed to serve.

The multiple contests add another wacky edge and leave us all rolling in the aisles. One woman demonstrates how to improve posture by whipping out her prosthesis and placing it firmly on her head, then circling the room. Another sings the complete theme song to Green Acres with full impersonation and Broadway drama. People choke on their wine.

I too am a contest winner thanks to a single butterscotch candy, blessed by the Dalai Lama and bequeathed to me by my yoga instructor Jackie. The emcee excitedly declares me the recipient of the Auspicious Charm in Purse Award after I exploded into the air like a rocket, wagging my precious candy like a flag. I am handed a martini-making kit, complete with a mickey of vodka. Should he find out, I trust that the Dalai Lama will appreciate the irony of the prize and not rescind my blessing.

Cancer conferences can be very raw events filled with heady, scientific content and an undercurrent of doom. So it is remarkable to me that we are laughing. These hundred women, ranging in age from late teens to mid 40s, are facing their own mortality with a modern-day pioneering attitude. Never before has there been a Canadian event dedicated to young women living with breast cancer.

And just like life, it's not all fun and games. The young moms, students, newly married, freshly separated, and women on the cusp of promising careers are seeking a connection and understanding so that they can continue living with some sense of joy and future. They also seek visibility in a society that prefers denial. Acknowledging the growing incidence of breast cancer in young women is to admit that something is wrong with the world and that a groundswell of action is required.

Breast cancer has become the household word of disease thanks to all the awareness-raising campaigns of the last dozen years. The average person recognizes breast cancer by name and nature. But the diverse range of women with breast cancer cannot be painted with one pink brush.

Career trajectory, education, motherhood and relationships vary dramatically at different life stages. Throwing breast cancer into the mix at any point in time affects each of these life phases in profound and complex ways. Cultural and religious differences further complicate the ordeal. Sexual orientation adds yet another layer of intricacy to the experience.

Unlike other conferences where expert panelists discussed current medical trends while women sit, waiting to hear some good news, the Vancouver organizers turn much of the stage over to the delegates. The women became the authorities of their own unique cancer process and share their stories directly with each other.

The difference is profound and moving. I listen closely to the 29-year-old, with three children under age nine, exhausted from treatment, frustrated by her chemo-altered memory, with a supportive but equally burned-out husband. She quietly wonders what and how much to tell her kids. Then the single woman in her early 30s who wants to date but feels terrified by the thought of revealing her disease and her missing breast.

Epiphanies pop. Laughter ripples. Profanity pierces. Tears flow. Conversations focus on sex and sexuality. It is crystal clear to me that we are all part of a groundbreaking, think and feel tank that will swell far beyond these walls and help thousands of people through a very challenging life experience. Collectively, these women have found new support and they are going to nurture that support into something much bigger than themselves.

My balcony companion merrily chats away, telling me the details of her Gloria Estefan look-a-like prize. Suddenly her face lights up.

"Were you the woman who had her panties blessed by the Dalai Lama?" she inquires.

"Panties? You mean candy," I respond with a laugh. It seemed that Gloria's half of the room had misunderstood the excited description of my lucky butterscotch candy. Dozens of women left believing that I was carrying Dalai Lama-blessed panties in my purse.

Celebration pulses from the disc jockey's sound system and Gloria and I join the throbbing mass of female energy on the dance floor. I am instantly smiling, surrounded by youthful, giddy energy.

If you are a young woman living with breast cancer, please contact

Sue Richards is a social entrepreneur, artist and cultural animator. She is also a member of the Mercury's Community Editorial Board. Check out her Guelph Photo Blog.

Contact Sue Richards at [email protected]

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