When you’re in your 20s and 30s, you often feel invincible — like there’s so much time to make mistakes because you’ll fix them tomorrow. It’s easy to boast that this is the time to do whatever you want.
But then something happens. Maybe you lose your job or your longtime friend stops returning your texts. Or, maybe you learn at age 35 that you have breast cancer — and that’s what happened to me.
Like any tragedy, it’s impossible to not be changed by what happens to you when you get your diagnosis. And at the same time, you want to interact with those who have experienced this similar life-changing event. The problem is that young adult cancer (cancer affecting those in their 20s and 30s in particular) is not as commonly discussed as the cancer your great-aunt or grandmother gets.
You’re often the only one in a waiting room trying to squeeze in your oncology appointment between work conference calls. Or you must worry about whether the chemo drugs will take away your ability to have children — something you hoped for many years down the road after one of your online dates turns serious.
About a year after I got through cancer, I thought I was fine and could just go back to my old life as if nothing happened. I had successfully compartmentalized cancer — I carelessly fell back into the habit of thinking I could do whatever I wanted.
As a reward for beating cancer, I went on a pilgrimage to Italy with other young adults from my parish. During that trip, I realized that I had been changed by cancer, and that my attitude had to change. I’d like to say it was the prayer and visits to churches that changed my mind, but I believe God reached me through the people I traveled with. This small group of friends opened my eyes. I couldn’t find joy in the same activities as before.
I came home from Italy and started volunteering to help a poor church, school and food pantry by raising money; getting new winter coats donated to the school; helping with social media and a newsletter; coaching a student slam poetry team; and creating an artist mentorship program for the students. I found joy raising money for turkeys at Thanksgiving or by sharing the words of Pope Francis on the church’s Twitter account I maintained.
Once I got started, I kept thinking about what else I should do. I thought about how to help others facing cancer.
In November 2017, I started an online community called Humor Beats Cancer. I wanted to create a place for those experiencing or having beaten cancer in their 20s, 30s and 40s to talk about their journeys, but with an added twist.
So much of what you read about cancer can foster hopelessness. I wanted people to be able to share uplifting stories and allow them to laugh at all the crazy stuff we experience. People get confused when they see someone with cancer laugh. How can someone be joyful during such a difficult situation?
When you have a disease like cancer, there is a real fear that your heart will go dark and the light in your eyes will go out. I wanted to help keep the joy alive by creating a place that offers empathy and hope. I wanted to create a place to remind young adults facing cancer what it was like before cancer when they laughed and felt joy so easily. Instead of reminding them that they could die, I wanted to remind them that they’re still alive.
Pope Francis talks often about the importance of joy, particularly in the little things of life. He describes how being joyful with others brings us closer to God. And I believe that. If we can bring joy to someone’s life, without asking for anything in return and so that they forget their insecurities or pain for a little bit — then we are practicing our faith. Joy changes lives and gives people hope — just like it has done for me.
Chicago resident Olivia Clarke Silver is a writer who works in public relations. She’s a parishioner and parish leader at Holy Name Cathedral. Her website is Humor Beats Cancer, and she can be followed on social media at @humorbeatscancer or @humorbeatcancer. She is a guest columnist for the Catholic News Service series “In Light of Faith.”
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