Karine Chalifour has a message for the school children in Simcoe County who participated in Shave for the Brave this year, raising money for Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) by shaving or cutting their hair: “It makes a difference!”
Thanks to the funds raised, YACC has organized a retreat for young adults living with, through and beyond cancer, that will be taking place July 19-23 at the Ecology Retreat Centre in Mono.
It’s the first time a Retreat Yourself event has been held in Simcoe County.
Since YACC was launched in 2000, there have been a few retreats held in Ontario, but mainly in British Columbia and the East Coast.
“We’re thrilled. We really wanted to bring something back here, to give back,” said Chalifour, YACC program director.
YACC addresses the needs of a unique group of cancer patients: young adults between the ages of 18 and 39.
They are just completing their educations, launching careers, starting families, and facing huge financial challenges — all while dealing with the devastating diagnosis of cancer.
Not only may they be unprepared, there are few existing programs in either research or support that address their needs.
YACC was founded by Geoff Eaton in 2000, who was diagnosed with cancer as a young adult. Eaton found himself struggling, alone and isolated.
YACC provides advocacy, online forums and four-day retreats for young adults who are coping with diagnosis, treatment or post-cancer impacts — giving them the opportunity to speak with professionals, make connections, and tell their stories.
“Young adults are in a situation where their finances are hard, cancer is hard… and isolation is one of the biggest issues,” said Chalifour, adding this is why the retreats are free.
Held in a restful and attractive locale, with a qualified support team and surrounded by peers, a retreat “is the simplest way we allow young adults to connect with each other, in a safe environment and a fun environment… to be able to tell their stories.”
The participants, all cancer patients or survivors, choose the topics of discussion, talk with caring professionals, share their stories and enjoy free time in a recreational setting.
“It’s hard sometimes,” Chalifour said. “There’s a lot of tears, but sometimes there’s a lot of laughter, surrounded by people who nod their heads, who get it.”
Just ask Dani Taylor. She was 23 when she returned to Toronto after treatment for Stage 3 colorectal cancer.
“I just felt so isolated and alone,” Taylor said. “It felt like I was the only one. It felt like, ‘Why me?’ I didn’t even know where to begin to get help.”
The only thing she was offered by her care team was “just pity,” she said, and pity “wasn’t helpful to me. I lost my identity. I didn’t know who I was.”
She felt defined by her disease. She had become a cancer patient, but where was the kind, intelligent, funny human being that she was before?
“These things about me were erased. I felt like a 23-year-old woman in diapers. I felt cranky… I was convinced I was the only one.”
Taylor discovered YACC through a typical young adult approach: she Googled ‘cancer support for young adults’ on her laptop while she was at Starbucks.
The YACC website came up, including a description of the young adult retreats. She cried as she filled out the application form.
Taylor did not know what to expect, but within two days she was accepted for a retreat in Cobourg, Ont.
Despite deep reservations — “I went into it totally blind. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know anyone who’s going. I’m not religious. Is it going to be a religious experience?” — she decided to persevere.
“I was also just so desperate. I really couldn’t see a way forward for myself,” she said. She took the plunge and showed up for the bus.
It was transformative. Taylor sat beside a young woman — someone her own age, someone who could have been a schoolmate or a co-worker — and for the first time, discovered a shared experience.
They had different cancers but similar horrible side effects of cancer treatment.
“We were both able to talk about the side effects. We were crying on the way,” Dani said.
It was emotional, she said, but it was also a relief, a connection. They were not alone.
Taylor has since attended a second retreat. She took a degree in social work, and she now works at Gilda’s Club, a social club founded in honour of comedienne Gilda Radner that provides social supports to cancer patients and their families.
It was not her cancer diagnosis that was transformative, Taylor said, it was YACC and the Retreat Yourself connections — the discovery of a community.
Before cancer, she wanted to be a drama teacher. After treatment, she struggled to get back to that career goal before she found her new direction.
“It’s YACC that’s created that push and that change,” she said.
Taylor will be attending the upcoming retreat in Mono as a peer supporter.
Her goal now is to “try and build that community… to show realness, that we’re real people.” Young adults with cancer have a special experience, a reality, a story to tell, and the retreats give validity to those stories, Taylor said.
“That identity piece is massive without feeling they have to change their stories to make people feel comfortable.”
It is a transformation that others have experienced, said Chalifour, who has organized more than 20 YACC retreats.
Each time, “by the Friday, we feel we’ve been together for a week. By Saturday, we feel we’ve known each other for years,” she said. “There are people who have done a retreat in 2005 that are still friends today.”
And, she noted, “it becomes about way more than just the retreat… People take that leap of faith,” building new relationships and new paths forward.
Twenty-seven young adults will be taking part in the retreat at the Ecology Retreat Centre in Mono this weekend.
Twenty-three of the participants are “survivors, some of them in treatment, some a few years out,” said Chalifour, adding the rest are spouses or family members.
They range in age from 22 to 40, and they come from across the country — from Newfoundland, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Quebec, in addition to Ontario.
The fundraising, by kids in schools like W.H. Day Elementary School in Bradford and Lake Simcoe Public School in Innisfil, helped make that all possible.
“Cancer can be so hard,” said Chalifour. “The support we have had here makes a difference.”
For more information about YACC, visit youngadultcancer.ca.