CancerCon kickoff!

Last Friday, Alison (Rethink’s marketing + communications director) and I headed down to Denver for CancerCon, a conference created by the organization Stupid Cancer to bring the young adult cancer community together.

Our weekend was split between manning the Rethink booth and attending breakout sessions led by experts in the AYA cancer field (and in the evening hours, exploring Denver’s burgeoning dining scene. To say we were well-fed would be an understatement — I am still dreaming about some of the delicious bites we stumbled upon).

Our time at CancerCon was inspiring, thought-provoking, and educational. It also left me with a few key takeaways:

Young adults with cancer want to give back 

A common theme throughout the conference was using one’s cancer experience to help others. Throughout the sessions, I heard many young survivors express the satisfaction they felt from being public with their stories, which provided hope and support for other people going through a similar situation. Some also chose to give back by getting involved with organizations and becoming patient advocates, bringing a voice to the young adult cancer community.

Ethan Zohn, cancer survivor (and reality TV star!), shares his story and discusses how cancer has had an effect on his relationships.

In one particular session called Making Your Survivorship Count, the presenters stressed that young survivors should consider sharing their cancer stories as a means of empowering others and preventing isolation within the young adult community. They also mentioned the healing effect that results from sharing your experience with others. Going public might not be the right choice for everyone, but for many, it can be an important coping tool.

Young adults with cancer need to connect with each other

As someone who has experienced cancer as a young adult, I know the importance of meeting other young people in the same boat. Looking around at CancerCon, I saw how this rang true for everyone there who had experienced cancer. Friendships were forming almost instantaneously, regardless of where someone was from, how old they were, or what type of cancer they had. There is a unique understanding that young adults with cancer have of each other. I saw countless heads nodding in unison in response to comments made during the sessions, symbolizing the shared experiences and emotions among the group.

Connecting with other young women dealing with breast cancer at CancerCon.
Connecting with other young women dealing with breast cancer at CancerCon.

I often asked people who stopped by our booth in groups how they knew each other, assuming they were siblings or long-time friends. But the response I received most often was: We just met today.

The cancer world is going digital

Matthew Zachary, CEO of Stupid Cancer, introduced their new app called ‘Instapeer’ during the closing ceremonies. The app connects patients, survivors and caregivers impacted by young adult cancer. Matthew said it is his hope that all young adults will be told about the app immediately upon diagnosis, in order to prevent the isolation that young people with cancer so often experience.

Matthew Zachary talking about his new Instapeer app.
Matthew Zachary talking about his new Instapeer app.

I also noticed how the entire conference was inundated with social media: attendees had their twitter handles on their name tags and were encouraged to post and share online using the #CancerCon hashtag (and, naturally, we jumped right on that bandwagon, tweeting up a storm and making some new friends in the process). People were also encouraged to send questions via Twitter to television star Italia Ricci, who responded live during her interview at the closing ceremonies.

Closing ceremonies with Italia Ricci, star of ABC Familys "Chasing Life."
Closing ceremonies with Italia Ricci, star of ABC Family’s “Chasing Life.”

None of this is surprising, considering that young adults are attached to their smartphones and social media networks, regardless of cancer status. As an organization that serves young women, we have a pretty solid understanding of this ourselves, which is why we have been ramping up our own digital resources, such as our new LiveLaughLearn videos. Which leads me to my final takeaway…

People are excited about the work Rethink is doing

Over the course of the weekend, hundreds of people stopped by Rethink’s table in the exhibition hall, which displayed our various resources and educational tools. The widespread reaction was overly positive, from both young cancer survivors, and those who work with them. Comments ranged from “OMG I love this so much!” (in reference to our Your Man Reminder app) to “This will be such a helpful resource to my patients” (when looking through our resources for young mothers). Continually hearing, “Thank you for the incredible work you do” from cancer survivors, caregivers, and peers made me feel extremely proud of our efforts to rethink breast cancer, and the impact our work is making on the cancer community.

Me and Alison saying goodbye to CancerCon. We had a blast!
Me and Alison saying goodbye to CancerCon. We had a blast!

Our experience at CancerCon was definitely an unforgettable one and a great way to immerse ourselves in the AYA cancer community. I was blown away by the amount of resources and support that exists for young people dealing with cancer, considering it wasn’t that long ago that this age group’s unique needs were almost completely ignored. Clearly, we’ve come a long way. But let’s not spend too much time patting ourselves on the back just yet. Many CancerCon patients and survivors spoke of the numerous issues they continue to face, from isolation, to ongoing physical effects, to relationship struggles. Despite how far we’ve come, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Time to get to it.