The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Aging Out but Always Welcome

by Paola PalmieriNeuroendocrine CancerMarch 29, 2023View more posts from Paola Palmieri

I recently celebrated my 43rd birthday. Something about birthdays just hits differently for a cancer patient or survivor. They are not just special days when you blow out your candles and eat cake. After a cancer diagnosis, birthdays are a lot more meaningful. They are a celebration of life, accomplishments, challenges, obstacles, and fears we face daily. For me, every trip around the sun is a milestone I take seriously and observe with due diligence and cake. My birthdays feel like victories, and they are just another reason to say, “Fuck you, cancer! Look at me, another year older and still here!”

Turning 43 also comes with its “perks.” I am well into my mid-forties savoring the deliciousness of being a “grown” woman and not giving a shit about many things that used to haunt me. Things like fitting in, feeling accepted, looking a certain way, finding a job, feeling fulfilled by a certain age. Being in your forties feels like freedom wrapped in unapologetic silk. My kids are old enough to wipe their own butts, take showers on their own, do homework unassisted, and even stay home alone at times. I feel like my wings, which were cut short the moment I became a mother, have regrown and I can now go back to taking care of me. Your forties are truly the new twenties but with financial independence and a few more well-earned assets under your belt.

One of the things that changed for me as I entered life’s level 4 was aging out of the AYA demographics. I was diagnosed with stage four neuroendocrine cancer at 37 years old. It was when I was 39 that I found the coolest club no one wants to be a member of: the AYAs (adolescents and young adults with cancer). As you all know, the age group for this club is 15-39, which in my opinion is a pretty wide range. When I started attending meetings at 39, my initial thought was, “Damn, I only have one year before they kick me out. I’d better take full advantage of this!”

Those meetings were the best thing that happened to me that year. Not only did I meet some amazing people who I now consider my close friends and cancer fam, but it also allowed me to share my story and parts of me that I was not able to honestly express with other people because they just did not understand, even though they tried. Those meetings became vital for me. They were even better than hanging out with people in real life or as the young ones would say: IRL. They were a weekly party where everyone was welcome. We laughed, we cried, we shared very personal stories. We talked about our fears, our obnoxious or overbearing family members, our favorite things. We exchanged tips on how to deal with our condition, its treatment, its aftermath, and everything in between. We got together on special occasions for dance parties, movie nights, and gift exchanges. We had urgency meetings to support those of us going through very difficult times, and we especially shared the heartbreaking experience of saying goodbye to some of our dear friends and cancer family members. Being part of the AYA family made me a better human with a deep understanding, respect, and admiration for other AYA cancer rock stars dealing with this disease.

Once I turned 40, I continued to attend my meetings because they became part of my routine. I figured people would not mind me being just one year over the age limit. There were also other members who were my age and even a little older, so I did not feel like that much of an intruder. The get-togethers and conversations carried on as usual: meeting new friends and continuing to connect with the regulars. All of this happened during the beginning of COVID, which made our meetings even more important as we all had the urge to stay connected somehow. As the months passed and things started going back to normal, life for me got busier, and little by little I stopped going to our meetups. I also realized I was then 42 and maybe it was time for me to let go. It made me sad to think about losing touch with the friends I had made over the last couple of years, so I would check in with them from time to time and jump on a meetup here and there. Even though I have not been present in a while, I still love to hear from them, whether it is on social media or through a quick text message. I would still join the conversation without feeling I am not welcome because that would never happen with this crew. They are the most accepting, caring, and supportive people I have met.

The AYA family was there for me during the most difficult part of my life so far. They were the ones that inspired me to be open about my diagnosis, to share my story with others, and to be vulnerable. They held my hand when I had to go through scans and when fear of uncertainty would drag me to dark places. They may not know this, but they were the ones that helped me take life by the horns and truly live. I am no longer in the age group to be part of the group, but I know I have a lifetime membership to the club and that they will welcome me with open arms even as an old granny, which I hope to one day be!

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