Our flight from Seattle to Las Vegas was delayed an extra hour. Although we had planned to arrive a little late to the OMG 2013 Stupid Cancer Summit, the extra hour made that late arrival seem unbearable. I just wanted to get there! It was after midnight when the taxi drove us up to The Palms Hotel and Casino. I was exhausted, but the place was bustling with energy. Everything I heard about The Palms was accurate. It was a beautiful hotel filled with a young posh crowd, dressed to the nines, and partying as if they were immortal. The only difference was the unexpected inclusion of other young posh adults, dressed to the nines, who were wearing scarves to cover their chemo induced hair loss, dresses that exposed scars from ports, and shoes that maybe were a little more sensible for walking with crutches. Hundreds of Young Adult cancer survivors, in all stages of treatment, response, and remission, had descended upon Las Vegas for Stupid Cancer's annual OMG Summit. It was a powerful beginning to an empowering weekend.
The next morning the conference officially began with Matthew Zachary, the founder and CEO of Stupid Cancer, along with his incredible team, welcoming us to this fantastic gathering of young adults with cancer, their caregivers, professionals, family and friends. We were in a safe place where we could discuss anything and everything relating to our journey along the cancer road. There would be small group sessions we could attend throughout the weekend, tackling topics like survivors guilt, cancer as chronic, caregiving for your partner, caregiving for the caregiver, fertility, finances, insurance. There were even sessions for creative writing and gaming.
One particularly good break out session was called "Just for Gals (or Guys, respectively): Nothing is Taboo." In that session the effect of cancer on our bodies, our body images, our relationships with dating and our families, lead to a bonding other conferences rarely see. Speakers and panelists chosen to moderate these sessions ranged from cancer survivors themselves, to top notch attorneys and social workers from some of the best hospitals and organizations throughout the country. The Get Busy Living awards were given out to amazing cancer survivors doing incredible service in their communities. Clearly, the Stupid Cancer planning committee thoughtfully developed this event. There was something for everyone.
During the provided meals we sat wherever we wanted, at different tables labeled with different topics of discussion or cancer types. For desert, we had the opportunity to walk down to a room filled with tables of represented cancer resources like First Descents, Athletes for Cancer, The Leukemia Lymphoma Society, Hope for Young Adults with Cancer, and Livestrong. While eating a cookie, some watermelon, or a chocolate truffle we were able to speak to these organizations and really understand their purpose. This proved to be a tremendous networking tool not only for us, but for the organizations as well. I spoke to a few groups who had decided to join forces in fundraising efforts because they met each other at this event and found similarities in their mission and location.
In the evenings after the conference sessions ended, there were organized social opportunities like karaoke, pub trivia, and gatherings at The Palms' very trendy night clubs. Then there were the non-organized social events. My group of cancer friends, for example, headed down to see the grandeur of all the different hotels on the Las Vegas Strip one night. We ate at a hole in the wall Italian restaurant, bought a strawberry daiquiri to walk around with, and talked for hours while enjoying each others company. What I noticed in these activities was for the first time in a long time I felt undefined by the cancer label. I wasn't the token friend with cancer, because everyone in the group was touched by the disease in one form or another. What the OMG Summit does, is allow for a group of people who often feel marginalized, to not feel that way for a little while. It is a gift.
On the last day of the conference everything was wrapped up with a video of some of the weekend's photographs, more awards for outstanding individuals (including a one week lease on a Chevy Volt), and a key note speaker Dr. Zubin Damania, also known as ZDoggMD who delivered a modified version of his widely viewed TEDMED speech.
Matthew Zachary took the podium for one last announcement of what a great weekend it had been and how he looked forward to seeing us all next year at OMG 2014. With that, many of us headed to the airport. I took my laptop out of my backpack for the first time since I arrived at the conference, and logged on to my Facebook account. I was flooded with messages about how amazing it would be if we, as young adult cancer survivors, could just stay there together always rather than go home to our different communities around the country. A part of me longs for that too. Who wouldn't want to live in a community of peers who not only supported each other through difficulties, but intimately understood the curves and process of those difficulties?
Then I have to stop myself, and think of the greater picture.
We are the unexpected educators charged with the task of showing others that the unfathomable can happen in their world. Cancer can and does happen to adolescents and young adults. We are not an anomaly, we are not being punished for something we've done, we are not lazy. We do the best we can with the circumstances we are given. Unless we authentically show ourselves to those who do not understand young adult cancer, nothing will change. The 70,000-plus young adults diagnosed every year will not see improvements in health statistics, societal compassion, or medical care.
Our journey through this ravaging and heartbreaking disease is not only for us. There are many people watching. This gives us, as young adult cancer patients, a power we don't know we have. We are the ones who can truly create positive effective change in our world. All we have to do is show up. See you next year at the Stupid Cancer OMG 2014 Summit.
Follow Erin Havel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@Erin_Havel