Erica: Reflecting on my Breathe Now Experience

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Dear Jack,

My name is Erica and I’m a 27-year-old family medicine resident in Columbus, Ohio. I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2014, when I was 22. I was over 3 years out from my bone marrow transplant when my husband Andrew and I first heard about The Dear Jack Foundation. We were a year into our marriage. I was in medical school and Andrew was working. We were just kind of trying to go on with our lives.

We had been dealing with difficulties related to my body changes from the chemo and radiation and were starting to realize that some of them weren’t going away. These things could make a long-lasting impact on our relationship and our future, and we were trying to come to terms with that. On top of that, we had never really even talked about how my cancer diagnosis and treatment had impacted Andrew. I could only guess what he had gone through.

Caregivers often don’t openly air their grievances about the experience, probably because it feels wrong to complain when they’re not the ones with cancer. It’s also thought that the survivor is the one who faces the most hardship, but I do not believe that’s always true. Regardless, people tend to not complain around survivors, which is why caregiver support groups are great. The problem is that I can’t imagine many twenty-something-year-olds wanting to attend those. And on top of that, the struggles of young survivors and their significant others are quite unique.

So when it was recommended that we check out the Dear Jack Foundation’s Breathe Now Retreat for young adult survivor couples, I realized it was our one opportunity to step away from our busy lives and process all that we had gone through together. It was also a chance to meet other young couples who had endured similar things as we did. I had made several survivor friends already, and we loved sharing stories and making cancer jokes that no one else feels at liberty to make. But Andrew had hardly gotten a chance to talk to anybody who had gone through what he did as a young significant other of a survivor. First of all, even if I had introduced him to a survivor friend’s husband, they were going to just talk about sports and avoid the subject. This retreat, however, created an environment for sharing and healing – and also sports talk. Yes, significant others need to heal too. These amazing people chose to stick around knowing that so much was at stake, including their relationship, future ability to have children, and more. That can’t be easy to deal with alone. These people need to connect!

So we flew to Sedona in February 2018, and it was even more amazing than we could have imagined. We knew another couple was coming from Columbus, OH, so we planned to carpool north from Phoenix to Sedona with them. We had a blast from that moment forward and we still hang out with Heather and Mark in Columbus to this day! When we arrived at the resort, we were awestruck at how quaint and beautiful it was: large luxurious log cabins along a quiet creek. Most couples had their own rooms in one main house, and our rooms were amazing! There was a common area with a large table where we would share our chef-prepared healthy meals. It was the perfect environment to completely zen out! I immediately started making more friends, as it’s pretty easy for survivors to bond over the horrors of chemo and such. I was so excited to see that Andrew was clicking with the other caregivers too. That’s when I knew it was going to be great for both of us.

In addition to the social and supportive connections we made with other couples, we were asked to explore what we both had experienced emotionally through all of this – finally. Of course not everyone loves to share their feelings, and I can’t say enough about our social worker who facilitated all of this effortlessly and with respect to everyone’s comfort levels. We shared our sorrows, fears, values, and joys with each other through writing and activities. We learned skills to help us cope, relax, reconnect, and love. This is truly reviving for a relationship, and we brought these skills and new perspectives home.

We were also exposed to a variety of modalities to improve our wellness including mindfulness, yoga, massage, nutrition, and simply being present in nature. This was all done in a way that truly inspired us to make changes in our lives for the better. Between our extraordinary hike and twice daily yoga sessions, we were feeling motivated and refreshed. Our yoga instructor, the renowned Diana, was so very sweet and inspiring that I actually do yoga at home now (sometimes), and we even visited her studio in Los Angeles last year!

There was plenty of time between activities to relax, have fun and explore. A group of us would make the short 5 minute walk up into town to visit Sedona’s shops and restaurants. Though this walk was quite an incline, the view at the top was incredible. We hung out with the other couples and shared stories, making connections with people from all over the nation all because we had one very important thing in common.

I know you are wondering… YES, it was amazing to spend all of these days with the incredible rockstar and fellow ALL survivor, Andrew McMahon! Obviously, he makes this all possible. Passionate, down to earth, and with a great sense of humor, I can’t imagine a better champion for young adult couples. We can’t even begin to thank him and his lovely wife Kelly for their kindness, generosity and advocacy for people like us! And, of course, the staff that supports the Dear Jack programs are just incredible – they truly make this magic happen.

On our final night, we all sat around the campfire and sang songs together, looking at the Arizona stars and just letting go. I think at that point, nobody felt like a patient or a caregiver or a burden or a stranger. We were just people living life, and that’s exactly what we all wanted to be.

Sincerely,
Erica (AYA cancer survivor and Breathe Now participant)

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