The Young and The Breastless: Young women take on breast cancer their way

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BY SUE RICHARDS

 

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 the old pop favorite, "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-forties, 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 a household word 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 Y and B 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. A single woman in her early thirties shares how she 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, where both ideas and emotions are being intensely explored and 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 emcee’s excited description of my lucky butterscotch candy. Dozens of women left believing that I was carrying Dalai Lama-blessed panties in my purse! The DJ puts on "Celebration" and the song pulses from his sound system. Gloria and I join the throbbing mass of female energy on the dance floor. I am instantly smiling surrounded by all of this youthful, giddy energy. We were moving beyond pink ribbons awareness to bold, direct action.

“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.” Sue Richards lives in Guelph and publishes the Breast of Canada calendar.

If you are a young woman living with breast cancer, please contact www.theyoungandthebreastless.ca.

The organization is planning a second Young and Breastless Networking event in May 2006. Between now and then smaller scale one-day seminars and social events are in the works. If you have an event you would like to publicize, call or email them at young_and_breastless@shaw.ca and they will publish it in the next e-News or on their website.

The 2005 edition of the Breast of Canada calendar is dedicated to young women. It can be ordered from www.breastofcanada.com





Dr. Gabriele Helms was born on May 15th, 1966. She was 38 years old when she died on New Year's Eve, 2004, three days after giving birth to her first child, Hana Gabriele Helms-Shore.

Gabi was an Assistant Professor of English at the University of British Columbia. She was also on the Board of Directors for the Canadian Breast Cancer Network.

I met her in October 2003, at the Canadian Breast Cancer Network’s Annual General Meeting in Ottawa where she announced the plans for a new national event boldly called “The Young and The Breastless: A Networking Event for Young Women with Breast Cancer.” I reacted by writing a single word in my notebook, “BRILLIANT.” Then I introduced myself, showed her the Breast of Canada calendar and invited members of her support group to be models in my 2005 edition.

Gabi didn’t miss a beat. Our cross-country photo shoot could not have gone more smoothly. Appropriately, on International Women’s Day 2004, photos of six young women, all living with breast cancer, arrived in my mailbox. The incredible strength and beauty of the women took my breath away. These brave role models were making young women with breast cancer more visible.

I flew to Vancouver for “The Young and The Breastless” event last spring. After a warm reception, I watched and listened to Gabi as she spoke with confidence and tremendous grace, her vivacious energy setting the pace for this groundbreaking event. I remarked to “Dr. Helms” how I wished I was her student. Her compassion, courage and enthusiasm for life inspired me to no end. Leaders of such quality are in short supply in our world today.

The conference ended on May 15th, Gabi's birthday. I sang her well wishes with unrestrained gusto, as did the rest of the delegates. Tears streamed down my face, the kind of tears that come when my heart opens and I know that my soul is being touched by something rare and beautiful.

She was a daughter, a sister, a wife, a lover, a friend, a mother and an activist—taken far too young by breast cancer.

The family welcomes donations made in Gabi's memory to the BC Cancer Agency, www.bccancer.bc.ca

Sue Richards