Andrea Douglas writes poignantly about resilient young women facing breast cancer

Andrea Douglas writes (1)

Here is Andrea Douglas’ First person article published in the Globe and Mail April 14th

I turned 64 recently – not a particularly significant number – but after facing a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment almost 10 years ago, each birthday is important. Every birthday marks another year of life and each new number is met with thanks for another year of health.

I spent a couple of hours on my 64th birthday having brunch with 13 young women, most in their 30s, all of them breast cancer warriors. There’s a back story.

When I was going through my treatment at age 54, I was offered support group meetings through the hospital. I almost didn’t go. But if ever there was a monumental moment in my life, attending my first support group meeting was it. It was an epiphany for me to learn that something I didn’t think I needed was exactly the thing that would help me get through the toughest year of my life. I thought my caring and loving husband, my supportive family and my amazing circle of friends would be enough. I was wrong. What I really needed was other women going through what I was going through. All of a sudden I had a group of new friends who understood only too well the fear of facing breast cancer, the shock of being told chemotherapy was part of the game plan, the daily grind of radiation treatment, baldness, side effects and yes, the worries about recurrence that never truly go away.

As with so many other things, the hospital-run support group eventually became subject to budget cutbacks. The hospital is pretty good at fixing what ails you, but can fall down when it comes to supporting you as a person.

So I took matters into my own hands and started my own breast cancer peer support group in Ottawa. Because I knew in my heart that women in Ottawa needed it. No one showed up at the first meeting and I was devastated. But I soldiered on and tried again a month later. This time a handful of women came. And I, with zero background in social work or psychology or anything remotely related to running a support group, ran my first peer support group. Almost every month for the last eight years I have run these meetings. During the pandemic, I switched to online meetings because if cancer patients ever needed support it was during the lockdown when they felt more alone than ever.

I’ve met so many – too many – women on this path. Many work their way into my heart. One of those was a 28 year old facing a breast cancer diagnosis. The same age as my daughter. And that’s when it hit me. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate based on age. It’s one thing to be diagnosed in your mid-50s, when your children are grown, your career is winding down, your life is likely relatively stable and you can concentrate on you and on dealing with cancer.

But 28? 30? 35? Too young. So wrong. And the numbers of young women that I encounter keep growing. But they, like me, found their tribe. Eventually, a few of them put together their own private Facebook group specifically for young Ottawa women diagnosed with breast cancer. Every now and then they organize an in-person get-together. And I love that they invite me.

That’s where I was on my 64th birthday. With 13 of these incredibly brave and resilient young women — all of whom had been diagnosed between the ages of 28 and 38. In most cases, they had found the lumps on their own. And in most cases their doctors had said “you’re too young, it’s probably nothing.” In one case that “nothing” ended up being a 9 centimetre tumour before anyone took her seriously.

I wished these 13 women were talking about speed dating, or about juggling kids and jobs, or wedding plans, or daycare issues….. Instead, they were discussing things like nipple necrosis, breast reconstruction surgery, chemo side effects and early menopause due to estrogen blocking medication.

I felt sad, yet strangely uplifted. Because as they like to tell me, they were there, together, because of me. One of them handed me a birthday card and her words inside made me cry. She wrote that she couldn’t have imagined the last four years of this journey without me and that this group wouldn’t be here today without my guidance and support. That was the most special birthday present I could have asked for. I have helped them find something they never knew they needed. Each other.

Andrea Douglas lives in Ottawa.