Over 500 members of the young adult (YA) cancer community came together virtually to learn, share experiences and bond over five evenings of programming at the second annual YA Cancer Gabfest, held December 6–10. Gabfest is a collaborative event presented by two cancer support organizations, Cactus Cancer Society (formerly Lacuna Loft) and Elephants and Tea.
Mallory Casperson, CEO and founder of Cactus Cancer Society, and Nick Giallourakis, executive director of Steven G. Cancer Foundation and Elephants and Tea, explain that their two organizations are very well-suited to team up together on a virtual event. In both of their organizations’ work, Casperson and Giallourakis recognize the importance of online programming specifically for young adults. They aim to continuously build community and “reach people where they’re at,” says Giallourakis.
“Accessibility is important,” adds Casperson. “The way we deliver something is just as important as the type of content we’re delivering.”
Gabfest aimed to combine and elevate a variety of individual voices from the YA cancer community. The virtual event was open to YA cancer patients, survivors and caregivers as well as health care providers and nonprofit professionals serving these populations. Sessions featured many young adult warriors as speakers so that information was not necessarily a one-way flow from health experts to warriors, Casperson says. “YAs want to hear from other YAs,” Giallourakis adds.
The evenings-only, multi-day format of Gabfest helped build a sense of community among attendees, organizers, presenters and panelists, with multiple opportunities for getting to know one another and making new connections as the week progressed. Each evening of Gabfest focused on a different theme, which was explored from several angles through crash courses, interactive panels and after-hours social sessions. Participants had a chance to not only hear from experts but also to interact with presenters and each other, put knowledge into practice and socialize and bond over shared experiences.
Gabfest kicked off on Monday, Dec. 6 with a focus on storytelling. Breast cancer warrior and advocate Yolanda Murphy provided the opening keynote. Murphy shared her journey undergoing breast cancer treatment as a young Black woman, and ultimately about her decision to share her story and empower others to do the same.
Following the keynote, a writing workshop facilitated by Elephants and Tea helped attendees put their experiences into words and share their writing with each other. In Monday’s after-hours session, Emerging Voices, several members of the YA cancer community shared their personal stories. Giallourakis notes that the session strived to open up platforms for a wider variety of new speakers from the community. Elephants and Tea’s programming outside of Gabfest will continue this mission as well.
Tuesday’s theme was wellness. The evening started with a panel discussing exercise after a cancer diagnosis. Panelists shared personal stories about their relationship with fitness prior to cancer and how they have reincorporated activities into their lives post-diagnosis. Additional Tuesday sessions included a yoga practice, an exploration of “unmindfulness” and a Zentangles drawing activity. The evening closed out with a ramen cooking demonstration from Giallourakis.
Gabfest’s Wednesday sessions focused on health insurance. Navigating insurance can be stressful and confusing, especially for those in the cancer community. Cancer rights attorney Monica Bryant spoke on health insurance options, current laws regarding pre-existing conditions and financial assistance. An additional hands-on session with Bryant helped attendees use a worksheet to compare their own insurance options. Later, attendees gathered in breakout sessions to play Cancer Cards, a conversation-starter game focused on the cancer experience.
Thursday featured three separate tracks aimed at specific audiences within the cancer community. The sex and relationships track helped survivors navigate cancer’s impact on sexual health. Attendees were welcomed to share their questions and challenges in an interactive fireside chat featuring perspectives from health experts and survivors. Thursday’s additional tracks provided support for health care and nonprofit professionals as well as cancer caregivers. All three tracks came together at the end of the evening for an after-hours trivia game.
Gabfest’s final sessions on Friday encouraged the YA cancer community to use their voices. A closing keynote from Carlo Lopez and Wendy Griffith, hosts of the Cancer Patient Podcast, provided insight on supporting others through our voices and took questions from the audience about the popular Instagram cancer meme account @thecancerpatient.
Lastly, a goal-setting workshop facilitated by Amanda Marsh encouraged attendees to create a list of 101 tasks to complete in a period of 1,001 days. Participants worked in small breakout rooms to share their work and discuss their individual task lists including plans for travel, art, physical activities and professional development.
Looking ahead, both Casperson and Giallourakis note that their organizations will continue to focus on accessibility, building community and elevating new voices. Plans are already underway for the next edition of Gabfest, which will take place December 5–9, 2022. “I cannot stress enough how awesome the partnership is between our two organizations,” says Giallourakis.
“Gabfest is a hundred percent a full partnership. We’re in this on every level together,” adds Casperson.
Cactus Cancer Society provides interactive online programs for YAs facing cancer throughout the year, including writing workshops, art classes, game nights and discussion groups. Learn more at www.cactuscancer.org.
Elephants and Tea is the only media company dedicated to the adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer community. The quarterly Elephants and Tea magazine is available online and in print. Learn more at www.elephantsandtea.com.