By Guest Blogger Scott Slater
I’ve been asked to write this blog to explain my reasons for attending The 6th Annual OMG! Cancer Summit for Young Adults this April 25th-28th in Las Vegas. As I sit down to write, I realize this is a daunting task indeed, because I have many, many reasons. But first, a little history; I am a testicular cancer survivor. My cancer journey began over six years ago in the summer of 2006, when I found a lump mere centimeters across that would change my life forever.
Those of you who have experienced the joys of cancer treatment–or who are currently experiencing the joys of cancer treatment–already know this part of the story all too well. The months that followed were a whirlwind of doctors, waiting rooms, tests, procedures, surgeries, needles, radiation treatments, nausea, anxiety, stress, you name it. But this blog isn’t about all that, it’s about what happened after the whirlwind was over.
On October 13, 2006, I showed up for my last round of radiation, after a total of five and a half weeks of glow-in-the-dark fun. Everyone at the clinic was all smiles: “Congratulations! You’re done!” Although I certainly shared in their enthusiasm–believe me, no one was happier than I was that I no longer had to subject myself to that anymore–I left the clinic that day feeling, well, not quite “done.” What would happen now? There were years of CT scans and other checkups in my future, to be sure, but how could I return to my “normal” life after all of that? Why did I feel like I wasn’t connecting to some of my friends the way I used to? Why was I getting so many blank stares when I tried to talk about what I had been through?
I began to look online for support groups. I felt a burning need to talk about what I had just experienced with other people who “got it”–people who knew first hand what I had been through. I found a cancer survivor support group for men at Sloan Kettering in New York and made arrangements to attend. I arrived to find a group of 14 prostate cancer survivors in their 50s through 70s. And though this was a bit unexpected, I decided that the opportunity to talk to a group of people who could understand where I was coming from would still be a valuable experience.
Except that they couldn’t. Not really, anyway. It became clear to me that the ways in which I had been affected by cancer, as well as my concerns while going through the whole ordeal, were quite different than theirs. I wanted to talk about how this was going to affect dating. What it would mean for my sex life. What it would do to my fertility. And what it would mean for my life 20, 30, 40 years down the road. This was not the world these other men were inhabiting. I wanted to curse, and rage, and use lewd jokes as a coping mechanism. (I quickly learned that they didn’t.) I knew that I needed to find people like me, and it was early in 2007 that I saw a flyer for a group called “I’m Too Young For This!”, specializing in advocacy and awareness for young adults affected by cancer. It sounded perfect–and it was. For the first time I was able to meet with, talk to, and most importantly befriend other young adults who truly “got it.”
In 2008 I attended a one-day conference co-sponsored by I’m Too Young For This! and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, called “OMG! A Cancer Conference for Young Adults.” It was incredible event, not only because of the informative panels, but for the amazing opportunity to meet nearly a hundred young adult cancer survivors all at once. That conference was five years ago, and my how we’ve all changed: “I’m Too Young For This!” is now known simply as “Stupid Cancer”. I’ve run smack-dab into that brick wall known as “turning forty.” OMG has evolved as well, taking place every year since then, and I’ve been to every single one. I’ve watched it go from a one-day conference with 100 attendees held in New York, to a three-day event with over 500 attendees in Las Vegas last year. This year OMG will be a four-day event with even more survivors, caregivers, doctors, specialists and professionals in attendance.
So why do I keep going back? For the first year or so of my survivorship, I refused to use the phrase “cancer survivor.” Why, I thought, would I ever want to define myself by an event which was by far the worst thing I had ever endured? No, I was fully content to leave cancer behind forever. But Stupid Cancer, and in particular the OMG Summits, taught me two important things: 1. I will in all likelihood never be “done” with cancer. It is part of who I am now; and 2. The young adult cancer survivors I’ve met are some of the most amazing, genuine, kick-ass people I have ever known. There is absolutely nothing like spending a weekend in Las Vegas with hundreds of brave, determined, real, inspiring, and–let’s face it–crazy, fun souls. You might think OMG is a weekend spent thinking about and discussing cancer. For the most part, the panels and workshops are that, to be sure. But at the clubs, or at the pool, or at dinner, or in the lobby, there’s an unwritten bond where you can simply say, “Hey, you’ve been through that too. Let’s talk about ‘Breaking Bad’ instead.”
With each passing OMG I have attended, I am humbled at how much there still is to learn. How much there still is to experience. How much I still need to grieve about cancer. How much I still need to laugh about it. And how much I need to get really, really angry at it. This was never more true than last year. I can’t piece together any eloquent way to put it, so I’ll just say this: OMG2012 was nothing short of a cathartic shitshow of emotions–laughter, tears, sadness, anger, you name it. I hugged dear friends I had met at previous OMG Summits, and I met new friends I can’t wait to see again this year. With each year I get more excited at how I can give back to the people who are just starting their journey. Maybe that’s just me moving into “elder statesman” mode at the ripe old age of 41.
To be honest, words can’t really describe what OMG has meant to me over the years. If you haven’t already, you’ll have to experience it for yourself. I can tell you it’s been invaluable to me. Of course, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are worse places to spend a weekend in April than Las Vegas. It certainly didn’t suck to lounge out by the pool during a break, or to party on a balcony on the top floor nightclub of the Palms Casino with a panoramic view of all of Las Vegas. I could go on, but well, you know–What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
What happens at OMG, on the other hand, stays with me forever.