By Heather Bonynge
Five years ago, my life changed forever. Similar to the day I was told I had cancer, I didn’t know exactly what was going to come next but I knew as soon as I walked into the ballroom of my first YACC conference in November 2011, my life would never be the same.
December 19, 2008: My day started out pretty normal. I was a new mom to a beautiful four and half month old girl, and she was up with the sunrise just as she was every morning. We set about our routine as it had become over the past few months: eat, clean, play, and then sleep some more. It was during her afternoon nap when my phone rang. It was my doctor’s office. She told me the results from my biopsy had come in, and she would prefer to give them over the phone as it was a Friday, close to Christmas, and she didn’t want me to have to worry over the weekend why I was coming in to see her. I told her that was fine, I wasn’t really expecting any news, and that’s when she told me, “Heather, you have cervical cancer.” I was 27-years-old.
I didn’t know how to react in the moment I was told I had cancer. I felt like I was part of a movie that was on pause. I went upstairs and stood outside my daughter’s bedroom and just watched her nap. All I could focus on in that moment was that little girl sleeping in front of me, the immense love and joy I felt for her, and how at that point I didn’t know if I would be around long enough to watch her grow up.
I had no idea what direction my life was about to take. I only knew that whatever was about to happen, things were going to change, and the life we had just started building would never be the same.
It was a similar feeling as the first evening program began at Survivor Conference 2011. Surreal. I was so nervous to be going into a room with 95 strangers and sharing a part of my life I hadn’t even come to understand yet. I was also eager and enthusiastic to meet and become friends with each and every one of them!
The evening went by quickly. We ate, shared small parts of our lives with one another, and laughed as we were split into groups and asked to brainstorm and act out a commercial from a topic of YACC’s choosing. Those people had a seriously twisted sense of humour!
Once we had been able to relax a little and build up a certain level of trust with one another, YACC invited each of us to share our name, age, and cancer diagnosis with everyone in a large circle around the room. As we did this, we were to pick up a piece of rope that by the end had connected all of us. For me, this was the moment that we hit pause. Here I was, in a room of people who only a few hours ago were complete strangers, and this was probably one of the most real moments I had ever shared with anyone. Just like the day I was told I had cancer, I had no idea what direction my life was about to take. I only knew that whatever was about to happen, things were going to change and I would never be the same. What was different from the day of my diagnosis was that this time I felt no fear. For the first time since I had been told I had cancer, I was surrounded by people who nodded along with me while I told them my story, and without words they told me they got it and had felt that way, too. I was no longer alone.
The weekend continued with more sharing and laughter, and a realness that made me feel vulnerable, exposed, and empowered all at the same time. This was something not even Steven Spielberg could capture. I had been right. My life was already changing as a result of this conference and this incredible group of people, and I have never looked back.
In five years, I have gone from:
Feeling disconnected from my cancer diagnosis…
…to feeling anger and grief over what I felt it had taken from me.
…to not being able to reintegrate myself back into the life I had before cancer and feeling totally and completely lost…
…to slowly learning how to rebuild and rediscover who I am and finding out that gal is pretty great!
YACC has provided me with guidance and given me the tools and inspiration I needed as I went through these stages of grief. It has been my shoulder to cry on when things were really hard, a borrowed ear and heart when I shared my story, and my biggest cheerleader while giving me back the confidence I needed to rebuild. YACC gave me a voice, encouraged me to follow my dreams, and gave me life-long friendship.
Live life on purpose.