When Nick (Giallourakis) asked me to write my story on “finding your herd”, so many thoughts entered my mind. Should I write from my personal experience? Should I frame this as a nonprofit oncology professional? I have years of experience from both and only hope to share perspectives from every angel that will be beneficial to you all. So here goes…
Diagnosed with Leukemia in 2005…the world looked a little different. And by little, I mean A LOT. There was no Instagram, no Twitter, and Facebook was just launching for college students. I definitely carried the fighting spirit. I shared my story with anyone who was interested and willing to hear it. I loved being an open book about what Leukemia was like, how I felt throughout treatment, and why sharing my story was important. What I struggled with the most was finding my herd. It simply didn’t exist. The only young adult cancer resource I knew of was “I’m Too Young for This”. I bet most of you didn’t know that this was Stupid’s Cancer’s former name. What I wanted was to find other young adults in Pittsburgh who I could relate to, who I could connect with and share fears, worries, and self-esteem struggles that no one else could simply understand. I couldn’t find anyone! At least not in the cancer center where I was treated.
When life presents you with options, do you consider them all or shut down immediately? Do you follow your heart or let fear stop you from doing just that? I had survived Leukemia but felt alone and knew other young adults had to be out there who were just like me. At one point, life presented me with options: fulfill this new passion or stick to pharmacy school. I immediately knew the answer but certainly had no clue what the future entailed. All I knew was that I was on a mission, and the rest is history.
For years, I was determined to start at ground zero and build a community that I envisioned for young adult cancer survivors. I knew this wouldn’t happen overnight. I knew I had so much to learn, and I knew this would take years, a lot of patience, tons of networking, and trust. I had to trust myself before I could move forward. I had to believe in myself. Once I achieved that, then I could take another step forward.
I’ve been building a young adult cancer community for years…years! The herd I found was the one I created. “Build it, and they will come” has never been so true. The YASU herd has become a strong chosen family that welcomes all young adults, regardless of what type of cancer they have. We meet the emotional needs with virtual support groups, a safe space where no one feels judged or isolated. It’s a place they can be themselves and share the emotional peaks and valleys caused by cancer. Our virtual socials allow young adults to take a break and just have fun! This is where we see so many friendships blossom…friendships that will last a lifetime. I can’t even imagine how they’d be if this organization didn’t exist. And our financial assistance…well that’s the obvious. Way too many young adults are drowning in debt before and especially during and after cancer. It kills me to see this and we’re thankfully able to lend a helping hand to young adults living in Western PA in need of our financial support. Throughout the year, we provide educational workshops such as how to love yourself again, why considering a plant-based dietary lifestyle is beneficial, coping with chemo brain, fighting the fatigue with various ways of exercising, sexual health, and so much more.
But I want to switch the gears because YASU is just one herd. Thankfully, so many AYA organizations are being created. There are so many different ones to choose from, and I will always encourage everyone to take advantage of them all. To heal from cancer, you must find the herd that fits your needs. One way to start is by thinking of what you need. Are there things you need to discuss in a support group setting? Maybe you don’t want to talk about cancer. Perhaps you want to engage in fun social activities? Are you wanting to connect with others who share the same type of cancer? Maybe you’re passionate about meeting other young adults right in your city vs on a national level. The good news is you have options. What can feel overwhelming at times is trying to navigate all the resources now available for young adults. My message to you: if it feels overwhelming, just start with one at a time. If it feels right, keep joining and participating. It takes time to build relationships and feel you are a part of that herd. Just never ever settle. There is a herd for everyone. You get to pick and choose. You get to put in as much as you want to get out of it. And if you don’t even know where to begin, know you can start with YASU. We may be the herd you’ve been wanting/needing, or maybe we just need to have a conversation so that I can point you in the right direction of another herd out there where you’ll feel even more rewarded. I’ll leave you with this: if you find yourself feeling alone, depressed, lost, or anxious and realizing you need to feel connected to others who can relate, I promise you that it’s out there and we will do whatever it takes to find your herd. You’ve come this far, I refuse to let you fall.
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://elephantsandtea.cdn-pi.com/contact/submissions/.