A cancer diagnosis was the last thing I expected at 25.
But there I was, in a windowless radiology consult room, being told I had invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer. At 25. The doctor drew me a small picture to explain—the malignancy had broken out of the duct like a globular tentacle. It was not confined—it could go anywhere and do anything, and I felt hopelessly out of control of my own body and future.
I was confronted with many choices in the following weeks and, to regain some semblance of control, I did a lot of research. With Google as my starting point, I discovered a series of networks offering young adult-specific support such as Young Survival Coalition, First Descents, and Washington D.C.’s Smith Center. Thanks to these organizations, I had the good fortune to be connected early on in my cancer experience with several people who just got it (“it” being life with and after cancer). With these groups I could freely dish about surgery mishaps, weird chemo side effects, and fears of recurrence and dying–all topics that would have my non-cancer friends cringing and eyeing me with concern. I was part of a club that was simultaneously the worst and best club ever, and though I didn’t choose to be a part of it, I was incredibly grateful for its existence.
In the summer of 2013, I moved from DC to Philadelphia and mourned the loss of my DC “clubs.” I was eager to find new, young adult-specific support in the city of Brotherly Love, but I was disappointed to find it wasn’t readily available through local hospitals or community centers. Luckily, I posted a message to Stupid Cancer’s Mid-Atlantic Region Facebook page and found a small social group that met sporadically for happy hours. The first time I attended a happy hour with these other young adult patients and survivors, the feeling was indescribable, like I had known them for years. ‘Philly could use more of this,’ I thought.
And, like magic, I received a message on Facebook from Dakota, another young adult who was also looking for a community of support for her diagnosis of a soft-tissue sarcoma as a result of Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP for short). We met for coffee and discovered that, despite our different diagnoses, we had a lot in common—the biggest thing being that we both wanted to start a formal young adult support group Philly.
A couple months later, our dream became a reality when we gathered with several young adult patients and survivors for a meetup of what we now call the Young Adult Cancer Connection (YACC). Since then, we have hosted 250 of our peers at Philadelphia’s first young adult cancer conference, Cancervention, and a year’s worth of meetups, ranging from nutrition workshops to yoga classes to simple chat sessions in local cafes. It has been a transformative journey and we have heard from so many people that they are grateful for YACC’s existence. At one recent group, a young woman confided that she hadn’t realized her chemo side effects were normal until she met with our group and heard from others who had experienced the same things. It was amazing how the simple act of connecting people could yield so many positive results. But, really, when I think back about how much support groups helped me throughout my cancer experience, it doesn’t surprise me.
For Dakota and I, YACC has been a labor of love but also an important step in bringing people together —a mission we share with Cancer Spot. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my story of cancer and finding my “cell mate”s in YACC. If you’re in Philly, don’t hesitate to look us up at yacancerconnection.org!
Cara Scharf is the Co-Founder of Young Adult Cancer Connection which provides a forum for Philadelphia’s young adults to connect and know that they’re not alone in their cancer experience. In her “day job,” she manages programs and marketing at a science museum.