By Mike Wark
A little under a year and a half ago, I returned to my hometown of Red Deer after eight months of intensive treatment for leukemia at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary. The experience left me exhausted in every sense of the word, but thankfully, alive and in full remission. However, as I would come to realize, while my treatment may have been over, the mental health struggles and emotional toll that cancer would take were not something that could be cured in a hospital.
In the months to follow while I was on medical leave and rebuilding my immune system, I was sadly disappointed to find that there was little in the way of community support for cancer survivors in my area, and the idea of a local support group for young adult survivors simply did not exist. While in treatment, I had been fortunate enough to get involved with some great programs run by Wellspring Calgary, but there was no such organization in Red Deer, or even anything close to it. Like many, I longed for the chance to connect with others who had shared my experience, but I had no idea where they were or how to find them. Despite living in Alberta’s third largest city, the place I called home was still deemed “too small” to warrant the same resources for survivors found in larger centres such as Calgary or Edmonton.
For me, entering into this new stage known as “survivorship” brought forth a host of unresolved issues that cancer had seemingly awakened. In the months following treatment and my return home, I was plagued with anxiety and a fear of recurrence, and the dark cloud in my mind that the dreams I held for my future might no longer be achievable. At times I felt isolated and alone, and wondered if my life would ever return to how it had been before. Perhaps one of the hardest things was that as time went on, the abundance of support I had received from family and friends slowly faded away. Except for those closest to me, most people seemed to think that because I had survived treatment and was in remission, my life had returned “back to normal.” If only it was that easy.
Things changed in a big way for me when I began connecting with other young adults who had been through cancer. A few months after returning home, I was invited to a weekend retreat where for the first time, I met other young adults who had been through the same thing and who were willing to talk openly about their experiences. Inspired, I began seeking out further connections, and that led me to YACC. Now, a year later, I am proud to say that the connections I have found and the support I have received have led me to play a role in building a community for young adult survivors here in my area, and also on a much larger scale across the country thanks to the wonders of technology.
The YACC Web: Chats program was born out of the idea that by speaking about our shared experiences and building genuine, real relationships with each other, we might find the key to breaking the isolation and mental health struggles that accompany a cancer diagnosis. At first it started out small — just a few survivors connecting online every week via video chat to talk about whatever was on their minds. But with time, and spurred on by pandemic lockdown restrictions in the spring of 2020, more young adult survivors found their way to our weekly chats and we started getting into deep conversations about many of the issues surrounding facing cancer as a young adult. The chats have since continued to grow and evolve, and are now becoming a new avenue to provide much needed support for young adults facing cancer across the country.
I have a strong belief that within each of us lies a deep-seated desire to be known and accepted for who we are. This drives our sense of belonging, and motivates us to seek out and build relationships. To have others see us for who we are and accept us — regardless of our own perceived faults and weaknesses — is something we all long for, but are often too afraid to reach out and grasp. Why? Because in order to be truly known and accepted, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We have to allow others to see our true selves and risk the chance that we may be hurt because of it. This is perhaps one of the hardest things a person can do, but if we can find the courage to do it, we find that there is no substitute for the incredible feeling of being known and accepted for who we are.
For me, this philosophy of vulnerability as strength is at the core of what I believe makes the YACC Web: Chats program succeed. Creating an environment where people are comfortable opening up about their struggles, and where they know that they can receive support requires trust, transparency, and openness from everyone involved. It isn’t always easy to achieve, but it’s worth it. As the chats have progressed over the last several months, I have found that the connections I have made with fellow survivors — particularly those in regular attendance — have made a huge personal difference in how I feel about my own journey with cancer. Knowing that I have a group of people who will be there every week to listen and who can relate to what I am going through not only brings to me a sense of security and confidence that I am not alone, but also validation that the struggles we all face are real, but yet manageable when we have the courage to face them head-on and talk about them with others.
As the YACC Web: Chats program continues to develop, I am so appreciative of all the people who have come alongside to make it possible. This includes YACC’s remarkable admin team — Geoff, Karine, Lesley, and Angie — and my fellow Web Chat leaders, Gabrielle and Marley. Without all of them, this idea would have never gotten off the ground as it did, and this program would not have been able to bring support to the countless young adults who have benefited from it, and the countless more who will hopefully find it in the future.
There is something incredibly powerful about this common ground that we share as cancer survivors, and how it can be harnessed to build connection, relationship, healing, and growth. We may be spread across the country. We may have been through different types of cancer. We may be different ages or stages. Some of us may never actually meet in person. But in spite of all that, we are all connected by the fact that we all know what it is like to go through cancer as young adults, and as a result, we have gained an incredible community in each other. In my mind, that is at the heart of what YACC is all about, and I am incredibly grateful to be a part of it.