I spent most of this week at a retreat for women with metastatic breast cancer.
We require our own retreat (and ideally should have our own support groups, IMO), because it's hard for women in the other stages of cancer to express their true feelings when we are present - after all, we are their nightmare. The concerns we have, our feelings and our symptoms and our fears, they are all the things that 'survivors' are most desperate to avoid. And of course it's hard for us to express our true feelings when they are present, because we don't want to make them fearful and depressed, and we don't want to make them feel that their concerns aren't serious enough to be deserving of sympathy and support.
So the other gals get a large-scale retreat that challenges them physically, that opens them up to hope and joy and life. We get a small-scale retreat that pampers us physically and encourages us to both take care of business and open ourselves to the moment, as the moment is all we know with certainty that we have.
There were ten of us plus four group leaders, three of whom also have metastatic cancer. Some of us were bald, some had heads that were as downy as baby chicks, some of us had abundant hair. Some of us were grandmothers, some were mothers, some were married, some were single. Few of us looked frail, even fewer looked obviously ill. Physical pain and uneven energy was a given, a matter of degree at any particular moment, not something that needed to be dwelt upon.
We had much in common, but our journeys with cancer were unique - there was very little comparing of symptoms or treatments, even though most of us were currently in treatment and all of us had undergone various treatments and surgeries and testing. At meals, when discussion was not directed, we spoke about the concerns that all women share: career, interests, friends, family.
Mostly family. When you are forced to prioritize, when you simplify things until you get to the core of what really matters, it usually comes down to family.
The retreat was a wonderful experience. We talked about our feelings and our fears, of course, but we also talked about practical matters - organization and planning, healthcare, finances, the physical issues of menopause (most women with breast cancer are either menopausal at diagnosis or thrown into sudden menopause by the cancer treatments). We did yoga, we did breathing exercises, we listened to music, we painted. We swam and showered and jacuzzi'd ourselves until we resembled very pale raisins. We ate more food in four days than most of us eat in a month, and it was all delicious.
Those four days passed very swiftly, and we began our goodbyes on the third. It was, of course, terrible and sad to know that so many of us are likely to be gone in three years. The parting hours were bittersweet, burdened as they were with that unspoken understanding. But between the beginning and the end there was a lot of eating and talking and and crying and teasing and laughter.
...Pretty much like life, really, except with featherbeds and turndown service.