Cancer Support Groups Weren't For Me -- Until...

I yank my sweater over my shoulders to strategically block the word "cancer" printed across my chest. I don't want to stand out as the biggest downer in Vegas.
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breast cancer awareness women joining hands for support
breast cancer awareness women joining hands for support

I exit the elevator at casino level and catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror wearing a black and baggy "Stupid Cancer" t-shirt.

I feel a flush of hot regret in my cheeks for wearing this conference apparel just as dozens of doll-like women in neon bandage dresses teeter past. I yank my sweater over my shoulders to strategically block the word "cancer" printed across my chest. I don't want to stand out as the biggest downer in Vegas.

How again did I get myself into this mess? I try to remember. When I clicked onto the OMG! Cancer Summit for Young Adults website, I was greeted by an Elvis silhouette, the words 'Palms Resort' and videos of 20- and 30-somethings having fun. I read 'cancer,' but saw 'poolside cabana.' I excitedly punched in my Visa number as "I Wanna Be a Billionaire" played in my head and the smell of coconut wafted over my keyboard.

Now that I'm here, I'm having trouble smelling the coconut. I went to my first, and last, cancer support group after I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer seven years ago. It just wasn't for me. Instead I watched a young woman named Heidi talk humorously and honestly about her Ewing's sarcoma on YouTube. I viewed her 17 times.

As I turn off the casino floor and into the conference area, I wonder if the shuttles to the airport pick up every half hour or just every hour. And then I see a few women standing behind the info booth. They're wearing Stupid Cancer t-shirts -- with no strategically-positioned sweaters over them -- and talking casually with each other.

Walking towards them, I look into their cheerful faces, and I'm shocked when my eyes fill with tears. I blink them back. I have that feeling of thankfulness mixed with astonishment, which is almost holy.

Soon I am in the least likely place I could ever have imagined: the doorway of the Playboy Club. The first session I'm attending is on self-image after cancer. I don't want to be there. The effects of cancer on the body are more than just skin deep, I know that all too well. But a"theater in the round" conversation at the Playboy Club on embracing "all of you"? It seems so raw, unnecessary, rash. I feel like I've thrown myself into the deep end.

At least there are no women in bunny ears and fishnets and frozen smiles greeting me at the door. Instead, more than a hundred 20- and 30-somethings sit in zebra-printed chairs under the gothic chandeliers, many wearing Stupid Cancer t-shirts like mine. They're all there for this session on how cancer impacts self-image, relationships and intimacy.

I spot an open seat on a velour couch to my left and scoot in next to a shy-looking Latina woman I'll call Leslie*.

Because I'm nervous and unsure of what this session -- in a room full of strangers -- will stir up, I fiddle with the lid on my coffee cup and rotate my ankle in rapid circles. I pretend to be breezy. I ask Leslie where she's from and if this is her first time in Vegas and the pros and cons of flying versus driving. I am aware of how annoying I must be at this moment, but I am unable to stop.

Just when Leslie starts telling me about her road trip from Phoenix, a loud, "Whoop! Whoop!" punctures the air.

Two of the moderators -- an African American woman named Tamika and a side-pony tailed blonde -- stand in the middle of the club. Another two -- an Andre Agassi look-alike and a petite woman with glasses -- fan out to the corners. Three of the four moderators are cancer survivors.

They take well-choreographed turns speaking into their mics. They talk about cancer being part of who we are. They underscore the importance of not being ashamed of it. They ask us to "own it." Even though I can sometimes be a fan of disowning it, I like them. A lot. Tamika opens up the floor for discussion.

A big and brawny, 30-year old man named Jack stands up. In an unemotive, low-pitched voice, he talks about what's happened since his diagnosis. His fiancée broke up with him. His health forced him to medically retire from his job. He's now infertile, and he's terrified of dating. I grapple with the idea of this unblinking-in-battle type being scared of anything. He sits down. The club falls silent.

"So, Jack," says side-ponytail moderator, "What you're telling me is you're a total catch?"

"Exactly," says Jack. He grins.

The room erupts like a well-shaken can of Coke. Heads shoot back, mouths open, guffaws tumble out.

Next a spunky woman in denim cut-offs stands up and starts to speak. She's had cancer twice. She talks about how she met a man who asked her to go on a walk. After many years of being on her own, she went on the walk. And now that they're together, he often sees her in pain and distress. She says he talks her through it, as long as it takes.

"Some people see that light in you," she says, passionately, "And they carry that light for you."

Tamika unabashedly thrusts a box of Kleenex forward and numerous hands, including mine, grab at it. Leslie grabs, too. We share a knowing smile.

Tamika walks back into the center of the club. "When I accepted me, when I loved me, that's when everything happened. When I didn't like myself, I didn't like him," she says in a somber and sad manner. I nod, as do dozens of others.

"Today, though, I'm in L-O-V-E!" she sings to spontaneous applause. "The birds are chirping, the bees are buzzing, the flowers are swaying. Love, love, love."

Like everyone who has spoken before her, as exposed as a Hefner centerfold, she is spectacular. I feel stunned to be a part of this type of club, with these types of look-life-straight-in-the-eye people. I gather my bag in an astonished daze as the session wraps up. It strikes me that I must be one of very few women in America who ever walked out of a Playboy Club feeling better than when she walked in.

Late the next morning, I pick up several crumpled cocktail napkins on my bedside. I flatten out the napkins so I can read the names and numbers of other young survivors scrawled across them. I empty out my Stupid Cancer welcome bag and take out the dozen or so rubber cancer bracelets. I tug on "Jill's Legacy" and "Imerman Angels" and "Livestrong." Shoulders back, I head out the door, looking forward to another session.

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of other participants.

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