I am 17 years old and I am a seven-year survivor of stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma! I am from New Jersey and I was treated right here at Columbia University Medical Center. I recently attended Stupid Cancer’s CancerCon conference in Denver, Colorado in April. My experience was nothing short of amazing, eye opening, and life changing. As a teen cancer survivor, I feel that every teen should experience something as incredible as CancerCon. So I am writing to tell you a little about my experience there.
Now first, what is CancerCon? Well, it is defined as “The premier oncology conference and social networking event for the young adult cancer movement. The largest gathering of its kind, CancerCon brings together hundreds of survivors, caregivers and advocates to connect, get educated, build community and unite to drive the change we wish to see.” Pretty much, that’s what it is. CancerCon is an annual weekend-long conference with 700+ young adult cancer survivors. This year, it was in Denver so my mom and I took a flight there. When we arrived, I had no idea what was in store for me. Little did I know, CancerCon would have the biggest impact on me.
On June 9th, 2009 cancer fled my body forever, THANK GOD. However, it has never fled from me. Although I do not have it anymore, cancer is forever a part of me; a memory, a journey, a story, even a way of enjoying life.
I keep my cancer journey with me wherever I go. Whether it is while I am sitting through my algebra class, cheer leading at a Friday night football game, or even on a family vacation, cancer is always in the back of my mind. And that is not necessarily a bad thing—if anything, it is a wonderful thing. Having my cancer journey with me wherever I go is a reminder to enjoy every little part of life.
Cancer has led me to some wonderful things. It has led me to becoming the National Youth Ambassador for Hyundai’s Hope on Wheels. It has led me to be a public speaker for organizations like Hope & Heroes, The Octoberwoman Foundation, the American Cancer Society, The Valerie Fund, The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and Pennies for Patients. It has led me to Capitol Hill where I lobbied for the Creating Hope Act with Congressmen Michael McCaul and Mike Kelly, which was passed by President Obama last summer.
Despite the horribleness that cancer brought to my life for a short period of time, it has brought about nothing but wonderful, insightful, amazing experiences for a long period of time. I am forever grateful for having cancer since it led me to all of these opportunities. However, I am most grateful that it led me to CancerCon.
When I first arrived, I started with the orientation which was a little bit crazy! It was a room filled with tons of cancer survivors—people I did not know—all giddy and rowdy and ready for a fun, unforgettable weekend. After that, I attended numerous sessions relevant to my life, such as “How to Make the Most of your Survivorship.” The session that had the biggest impact on me, however, was the “OncoFertility” conference. It brought up some frightening, yet important topics about long term effects of cancer. Sitting through this was an eye-opening experience that taught me many things. The most important thing I realized was that I am not the only one having to deal with this.
You see, I often think about how I no longer have to deal with the nonstop symptoms of night sweats, joint pain, itchiness, fevers, and tiredness prior to diagnosis. I think about how lucky I am to have escaped the dark days of surgeries, chemo treatments, infusions, and losing my hair. But then I think about how UNLUCKY I am that I—a normal high school student—have to now deal with lifelong side effects. To me, cancer has not been in my body since 2009 yet it still finds a way to affect me later in life which drives me CRAZY. Sometimes I think “why me?”
However, the OncoFertility session changed that thought. During this session and the entire weekend, I was surrounded by 700 young adult cancer survivors just like me. I met people who had the exact same disease as me and went through the same experience. I was able to connect more with them—people who were strangers just a few minutes prior—than some of my own friends. I have never been in a place where complete strangers knew exactly what I went through without even saying a word to them.
I participated in scavenger hunts, karaoke nights, city walks, baseball games, and more workshops. The weekend was full of unforgettable memories, moving stories, and many moments of realization. I am so happy that I always keep my cancer journey with me, especially because it led me to CancerCon. This conference gave me a new thought: instead of “why me?” I now think, “why not me?”
Celebrate Brianna’s years of being cancer free with a donation in her honor to our Center for Survival Wellness. If you’re a young cancer survivor, connect with others just like you on Instapeer, an app created by Stupid Cancer.