The Great Escape is Shine’s flagship weekend for young adults with cancer. Every January we gather 22 people at the Grove Hotel in Bournemouth for a weekend of hanging out, information, walks – and usually some karaoke. This year’s Escape (our third!) was just as fabulous as our earlier two and we’re grateful to Robin Taylor who has written a blog about his experiences at the event. We’ll open registration for our 2017 Escape in October but you can learn more about it on our website, including videos from our previous weekends.
A Shiny Cloudy Escape
Just before Christmas 2014, I was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, a form of blood cancer mostly seen in children and adolescents. I am 34 and was previously pretty healthy. I have since been through a rollercoaster ride of treatment and recovery and 12 months on I’m finally settling back into a routine. I joined Shine Cancer Support to meet people of my own age who have been through similar experiences and decided to apply for the Great Escape because it seemed like a great opportunity to network and meet others outside my usual social group.
I arrived at the Grove Hotel just before the Escape officially started. I’m naturally a little shy and it usually takes me a few moments to adjust to a new group. A group of people were leaving to get lunch and it suddenly dawned on me that, as I hadn’t been to a Shine event before, I might be the only person to not know anyone. However, I was greeted with a friendly smile by Laura, who signed me in and pointed me in the direction of my room. I dropped off my bags and decided to find the lay of the land. As I walked down the corridor, I met another “Escapee” who said that she didn’t know anyone either so we decided to find coffee.
I soon realised that most people had met for the first time that day and that I was less of an outsider than I had first thought. As we sat down for coffee, we were handed bags with name badges and some notepads, leaflets and goodies including chocolate. There were now a few of us sat chatting in the warm conservatory looking out onto the garden. A few minutes in, Emma bounced into the room and introduced herself, welcoming each with a hug. I think she spotted my British awkwardness and apologised saying “sorry, but that’s how I roll; you’ll get used to me,” I had been in the building for about fifteen minutes and already felt like part of the team. Emma was followed by Ceinwen who identified with me as a “chemo buddy” as we’d had the same treatment.
After coffee, we headed to the main meeting room. Emma and Ceinwen (whom Emma helpfully introduced as ‘Kine-When’) quickly built a great rapport and the presentation was informal and engaging. They talked through the schedule, some ground rules and explained that the weekend might be emotional. We were also introduced to the support staff including a (very much in demand) psychologist and an on call nurse. In talking to the ‘peer supporters’ (young adults who have had cancer and have been on previous Escapes) throughout the weekend, it was clear that they were all easy to talk to and had a wealth of knowledge to offer. The activities for the first day were designed to help us get to know each other. At dinner-time, the tables were chosen for us at random which worked really well as we all quickly met and, by the end of the second day, everyone knew each other.
I surprised myself at how quickly I had settled in – within 24 hours, strangers had become friends. By the end of the day inappropriate jokes and cancer-related anecdotes capped a raucous evening
Day 2 – Calm before the storm
Yoga (which was optional), a first for me, kick started my morning. As a runner, I could see the value of the stretches and the relaxation techniques. The session was designed to cater for all abilities and I could feel the benefit at breakfast.
The day started with a myth-busting discussion – it was interesting to see that I was not alone in my ‘common knowledge’ and ‘tabloid fact’ scepticism. We were introduced to some useful online resources with which we could help inform our opinions.
The afternoon was a fairly intense discussion about the emotional strain that a diagnosis can have on us. There were some really emotive discussions around how we managed our personal feelings and those around us who were also affected. Listening to some of the conversations found me holding back tears on a number of occasions.
We went out for dinner which was held at a fine high street pizza establishment – a welcome break from the walls of the hotel and good to catch up with people in a neutral environment.
Day 3 – A Sea Change
After my second yoga experience, we quickly settled into a discussion around relationships. We talked about how we communicated with friends, family and partners. On top of our varying diagnoses and prognoses, our family lives were just as varied but sharing the host of struggles that we could all identify with was a liberating experience.
The lads in the group were in the minority, but I had a number of really engaging, open and frank conversations. It seems that we all had handled ourselves in a very similar way and talking through our coping strategies was both cathartic and enlightening.
After lunch we broke into separate groups, and I was glad to see that I was not the only bloke in the fertility discussion. Though outnumbered, I felt comfortable talking about this difficult subject in front of the group, and the discussion was well guided by a highly experienced specialist nurse. As one of my fellow male companions said later “we learned a lot about how… er it works” (followed by a huge laugh from the group)
Apart from a few optional activities, there was a fairly generous break before dinner so I decided to go and hide. I didn’t even get round to switching the TV on or pick up my book as planned before the emotions started pouring out of me. To help me get through the next few hours, I decided to write a poem:
There’s a bottle within which all my tears go.
Emotion comes, I take one, stopper the jar, then stem the flow.
It’s difficult to know where and when or why they come.
The swelling fear, the hide and run.
Feelings don’t frighten me, I know they’re there.
I’ve just learned to close them down.
I don’t reflect, I look forward.
I don’t regret, I learn.
I’m trying to live,
My experiences don’t define me.
I learn from my experiences and define myself around them.
I’m still learning.
I’m trying to live,
if I don’t let them out,
the bottle might explode.
Before I knew it, it was time to head back for dinner which was followed by a pretty intense evening of karaoke. Audience participation was at a record breaking high, and some unexpected superstars arose from behind the curtain.
Hike and home
The event of the final day was the ‘Hengistbury Hike.’ We started with a talk from a fitness instructor whose specialism is working with cancer patients. As with all the speakers and contributors of the weekend, he was engaging and interesting – and even for a fitness convert like me, his approach was really interesting. The hike was well planned with different routes depending on ability and we spent most of the time chatting and taking in the beautiful scenery. The weather was exactly as expected (rainy and cold!), but refreshing and not too harsh on us. We returned for a de-briefing followed by a hugely emotional and huggy parting of our ways.
The journey home was a blur – I had the radio on but didn’t hear it. I think my mind was spinning from all I had learned and the wonderful people I had met. The comments in our private online group over the following days have been a testament to the bonds we formed, and I’m very grateful to everyone for having shared part of themselves with me.
I would have no hesitation in recommending the Escape to other people. On top of a range of practical advice, I learned that talking about how I feel is not only important for my own recovery, it will help those around me.
Robin Taylor blogs at http://www.robinbtaylor.com