Finding your community while battling breast cancer in your 20s and 30s
Rebecca Vincelette, 38, found the Cancer Community Center in South Portland when she was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. She remembers looking into their online programs a week before her mastectomy. Vincelette was part of a phone-call support group for young women in treatment for breast cancer through Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“It took me many months until I was well enough to personally make it to the Cancer Community Center for support groups,” Vincelette says. “When I was able to go I was frequently multiple decades younger than the other participants.”
During treatment and years of rehab and recovery, she didn’t have much contact with women her age who were struggling with cancer. She realized how alone she felt. “Peer support at the Cancer Community Center is about connecting to another person who has had an experience similar to your own,” says Molly Stewart, mission services director at the Cancer Community Center. “Cancer can be very isolating, and meeting other people who share a similar struggle can help to rebuild a connection to community.”
Battling breast cancer in your 20s and 30s often includes more aggressive forms of the disease, higher mortality rates, fertility issues and early-onset menopause. Then there are the personal challenges. It can cause problems in your dating life and relationships, it can wreak havoc on your body image and create intimacy issues. And then, there’s the financial impact—the high cost of treating the cancer, plus the challenge of fighting a disease with a burgeoning career and possibly only a single income.
Vincelette was 33 when she was diagnosed, with 3-year-old daughter Teigan and 1-year-old son, Quinn. Her only family history was her great-grandmother, who had cancer in her 90s. Two years after a bilateral mastectomy with initial reconstruction, four months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation daily, followed by years of hormonal treatment, Vincelette attended a retreat in 2013 for young women with breast cancer. “The experience of three shared days with six other women in their 30s with breast cancer changed me,” she says.
Eager to establish a way for young women to connect through the shared experience of battling breast cancer, Vincelette came upon Young Survival Coalition online. Founded in 1998 by three women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 35, they created a national, nonprofit resource for young women battling the disease. “It felt like a breath of fresh air, like the windows had been opened for the first time in spring after a very long and bitter winter,” she said.
Then, she found Young Survival Coalition’s Face2Face, a network that provides support for young women affected by breast cancer. Local, grassroots, peer-to-peer networks are created and led by survivors, social workers and health-care professionals and are a way to help extend YSC’s reach through personal connections. Vincelette was thrilled to find these resources and find women like her, but was disappointed to discover there were no Face2Face groups in Maine and no Young Survival Coalition locally either. So she became a volunteer for YSC and has trained to be a Face2Face coordinator. She is now the state leader for Young Survival Coalition in Maine and a coordinator and co-facilitator for the Portland Face2Face group.
Vincelette is coming up on her five-year anniversary since being diagnosed with breast cancer. She is returning to the Cancer Community Center and helping to offer more support for young women under 40 battling breast cancer. Through the Young Survival Coalition, a Face2Face support group started in May. Vincelette and a friend, Ryann Chamberlain, have been training in group facilitation at the Cancer Community Center. The 30-hour training course is for volunteers who will be leading support groups at the center.
Vincelette and Chamberlain met at physical therapy. “We would meet at a restaurant every few months and talk for hours, laughing, crying and listening to each other. Our times together had always been a source of inspiration, encouragement, validation and support,” she says.
FOR THE YOUNG AND STYLISH SURVIVORS
Eager to find support and community with fellow young women battling breast cancer, 33-year-old Cait Kelly of South Portland started the website newlemons.com, described as a blog for stylish young breast-cancer survivors and everyone who loves them.
She was diagnosed at 31 and her mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She took to the Internet for comfort and support and didn’t find any information about young survivors like her- self. She said there were no pictures of women like her, with a promising future ahead.
Challenged to redefine the way this younger generation feels about cancer, she says she hopes to bring awareness and remove the stigma. “I want to take what I have learned from this incredible life-changing experience and share it with others that may be struggling with their own battle. My hope is to create an optimistically informative oasis for survivors and their caregivers, friends, family, and co-workers.”
Check out Kelly’s site and join her on her journey to make her new lemons into lemonade and search the hashtag #LoveYourLemons on social media.