By Gwen Darien
The gang's (almost all here)
By Gwen Darien
I arrived in San Antonio in the afternoon, checked into a familiar hotel, the Marriott Riverwalk, quickly unpacked and crossed the street to the convention center. It was mid-December and I was at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS) again.
Despite the fact that the symposium is so close to the holidays and always comes at the end of a busy year, I was looking forward to spending four days among old friends and new science. This was especially true this year, when the American Association for Cancer Research, CR ’s publisher, became a co-sponsor of the symposium. I’ve been attending the SABCS for a dozen years, and it has become central to my work in patient advocacy—and to the community that I have built around this work.
The cancer community can be very affectionate, and that’s never more true than in San Antonio. There are survivors, advocates, physicians and scientists who attend this meeting whom I see only once or twice a year. Perhaps because I’ve known so many of these people for so long, or because I contrast the collegiality with the more impersonal scientific presentations, or because we never know what will happen to us in the intervening year, the interactions are warm and genuine.
Indeed, within a community of survivors, there is always loss—there is always a person who was a central part of the SABCS who dies in the intervening year. I still look for my friend Elva Fletcher every time I walk into the Alamo Breast Cancer Foundation mentor sessions, which take place during the symposium. Elva, who died in 2004, was always there to help organize the program and make everyone feel welcome. But in the midst of such painful absence, there are always new people, too: those whom I have met in the year since the last SABCS. And while the new acquaintance never replaces the old, the new friendships and conversations add another dimension to our experience.
The survivors I see each year keep track of one another’s lives—personal and professional—and of our health status, and years of survivorship. When I missed the symposium one year, I was surprised that so many advocates came up to me with expressions of concern about whether I was OK and of relief on hearing that I was fine.
And, because my advocacy work has been primarily in publishing and education, it is exciting to see the many physicians and scientists who have become central to my cancer community. It is thrilling to talk to researchers whose work I first featured in magazine stories 10 years ago, or to attend their presentations about clinical trials that I have been following for years. Yet, our lives and families are an equally important part of the conversation when we run into one another.
We are all comforted by the knowledge that there is a community of people out there who follow our life paths and care what happens to us.
(Photo by Danny Wilcox Frazier)