Written by Send It participant, Jan 2022
After my diagnosis in 2014 and treatment in 2015, I’d done my best to return to “normal” life. I tucked my cancer experience away into a corner of my brain, after which I proceeded to try to forget about it. From time to time, feelings would come up, and I would either (a) tell myself it hadn’t affected me that much (b) break down in tears thinking about how hard it had been or (c) wonder when I’d actually be able to process all of it. Then, in 2020, I reached the 5-year anniversary of the end of treatment, and realized it had been five years of the aforementioned a, b, and c coping mechanisms, none of which struck me as particularly healthy. 2020 also brought with it the start of the pandemic, during which I moved back into my parents’ house, the place I’d also lived during treatment. The parallels, both physical and mental, of the pandemic and my cancer treatment were too many to ignore. During the pandemic I felt trapped inside that house, with an uncertain sense of anxiety about how long things would be this way, just as I had during chemo.
I decided it was time to start unraveling the tightly knit protective border I’d built around my cancer experience and to bring it out of that isolated corner of my memory.
I sought out Send It because I was craving more healing and I needed more connection with other survivors. After a positive experience through a virtual group last summer with a different organization, I realized I wanted to continue that process, to deepen my understanding of how cancer had changed me. Rather than keeping my cancer experience cordoned off, and seeing myself as two separate parts (Penelope, and Cancer Survivor Penelope), I wanted to learn how I could integrate it as a part of my identity.
Leading up to the trip, I was nervous about what the group dynamics would be like. Would I actually be able to connect with anyone or feel comfortable discussing my cancer experience? I can viscerally remember walking up to the table the rest of the “Send It” group was seated at, wondering how we would get along. But by the time we kicked off introductions, I’d realized I didn’t need to worry. That’s because in between the laughter, our group decided that our intros would include sharing our name, hometown, number of remaining nipples, and number of remaining testicles. As a group of cancer survivors, we went straight for the good stuff and it was great. While everyone might not do introductions that way, it was the kind of candidness, humor, and vulnerability that led me to believe this was a good group of people to open up around.
I am still in awe that despite all of our different backgrounds, ages, and stories, we managed to connect so deeply. I’m good at talking, filling the silence, and creating conversation. But that doesn’t always amount to true vulnerability or connection with others, and I don’t find it easy to share certain parts of myself, especially the aforementioned tightly protected cancer experience. I don’t know if it was the mountain air or what, but something really clicked with our group. I didn’t always have to fill the silences, because others would–stepping forward to share their stories. I didn’t always have to create conversation, because others would–asking questions and diving deeper into the topic. Everyone was supportive and warm, and as eager to open up about their own experiences as they were to hear other’s stories.
Another aspect that made the Send It experience so amazing was that I didn’t have to plan or research anything. I’ve wanted to learn how to ski for ages, but I’m a planner and a researcher. Anything I do, I research thoroughly— and when I say thoroughly, I mean hours down strange rabbit holes on the Internet, reading up on every nuance of the subject till I could give a 15-minute presentation on the subject. Yet every time I tried to plan a ski trip, the logistics escaped me. It felt too overwhelming to plan, and there was too much new information.
With Send It, all I had to do was show up, and the whole experience was already coordinated for me. It was a relief to have my choices reduced to “pancakes or parfait for breakfast”? Saved from the paralysis of choice, I could finally relax. And perhaps that was the key to our group’s authentic connection. We were all relaxed, able to be ourselves without the worries and stresses of our everyday lives. But it wasn’t easy to let go of old habits. When we arrived on the first day, a part of me was hoping for an itinerary detailing how our days would go, with each minute accounted for. I had to remind myself, that was just my anxiety speaking– I was in the hands of experts, and everything would be just fine even without me controlling it. And it was better than fine. The house we stayed in was gorgeous, there was more food than any of us could have eaten, and each day felt like a dream. Walking away from the trip, I wasn’t sure whether we would stay in touch as a group or whether the magic would remain preserved in the trip. I am grateful that it was the former–we remain connected to each other’s lives even as we’ve returned to our daily rhythms, and have made plans to reunite. And knowing that I have a group of people to reach out to when I’m thinking about my cancer experience is reassuring. While I hope to “send it” on the slopes again soon, I’m trying to channel that spirit in more ordinary ways. Like noticing my neighborhood with the same wonder-filled eyes I looked at Lake Tahoe with, and appreciating the beauty around me. I know that “sending it” is not an unfamiliar feeling for me. I’ve “sent it” before, and recognize the rush of adrenaline from other times, like when I pressed “book” on a flight for a solo trip, or walked up to a group of strangers at a party and introduced myself.
It’s that feeling of relying on the courage within me to face whatever comes my way. It’s taking that plunge underwater, leaning in for that first kiss, signing up for that activity, applying for that job…. It’s the impulse that asks “what if you take that leap”? What amazing things lie just outside your comfort zone?