This past weekend, I had the privilege and honour of attending Man Up to Cancer‘s inaugural Gathering of Wolves in Delevan, New York.
It was a sacred and special event for so many reasons, but being able to be a part of the first one is an experience that I will never forget. Around sixty men, spanning countries, ages, and types of cancer came together to share our experiences, swap stories, and finally meet each other face to face after all of the Zoom calls, private chats, and Facebook interactions we’ve had with one another.
The profound, transcendent effect this will have on my life will not be adequately communicated through words and pictures, but I’ll do my best to give a taste.
Trust and Vulnerability
So much of the event was centred around people sharing stories and talking about some of the hardest struggles (and funniest moments) we’ve undergone as a result of our diagnoses. This is, obviously, a very private and personal thing so I won’t betray the trust by sharing details. I will, however, be putting together some of the lessons that I learned from folks over the coming days.
Conversations ran the gamut from the serious, heavy topics to the lighthearted and fun. But the degree to which we felt comfortable to share with each other was really touching and made the event something special.
I truly feel like I understand what it’s like to share a revered kinship with a group of people.
The closest paradigm I can think of would be a bond between people who’ve been through the shit together. First responders, soldiers, and the like are thrust into situations that only firsthand experience can understand.
In that way, it’s not what’s said that makes the bonds strong. It’s what doesn’t need to be said.
There are three words that ultimately brought us together: you have cancer. And to be around those who’ve also heard those words is to have an inherent understanding.
Through the Gathering, I know that I’ve strengthened friendships that will last a lifetime and formed new ones that I will always hold close to my heart.
Perhaps like the bond of soldiers, there is also a somber reminder that some of these friendships may not last long. Cancer, like war, ends lives too soon. It’s a very real possibility that some of the men I’ve come to know and love may not be around for the next Gathering.
That so many people were willing to share the irreplaceable gift of time was really moving.
I mentioned earlier that this was the inaugural Gathering and, as such, was a chance to solidify some of the traditions that will be a part of future get togethers.
The Challenge Coin
One of these traditions will be the gifting of a challenge coin at each event.
The challenge coin’s origins are rooted in military history. Without going into extraneous detail, the coins have historically been used to show proof of membership in a particular unit, participation in an operation, or have been exchanged by members of different countries to symbolize camaraderie and loyalty. Other examples include organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, who award coins as members reach sobriety milestones.
The Gathering of Wolves challenge coin is a reminder of one of Man Up to Cancer’s key messages: Keep Fucking Going.
On social media, the hashtag #KFG is used by members of the group as an aide-memoire to inspire and connect with others that are having a hard time. We must remember to keep fucking going. Life is worth living. There are a lot of experiences to still be had, in spite of how difficult cancer can get.
The challenge coin is a physical token of this message and will accompany me to my important appointments.
The Remembrance Ceremony
There is a famous, unattributed quote that reads:
“They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and the second, a bit later on, when somebody mentions your name for the last time.”
The annual remembrance ceremony is an opportunity to speak the names of those who’ve died. It’s a way to honour them and, in a way, to immortalize them by keeping memories of them alive. We took turns speaking the names of approximately 130 of our brothers.
Even though I’ve only been a member of the group, there are already members who’ve impacted me that are no longer living. Such is the way of groups that include people with terminal illness.
Having been able to participate in the first one, I can say with certainty that this tradition will be one of the most important and sacred.
As part of the event, each attendee was also provided with a lantern which we will light at home in memoriam when one of our pack brothers falls.
There are so many exceptional men in the group who are doing extraordinary things. We want them to have the pack with them as they accomplish their goals. A few of our members created a banner that attendees of the Gathering signed so that we may be there with people who are doing remarkable things.
One example from the Gathering is that we were able to walk the final leg and share in the celebration of one of our members whose goal was to walk 10,000 miles (16,093 kilometres) in a single year.
Another group of men are holding a fundraising event at a brewery in Nanaimo, British Columbia to fundraise for chemotherapy backpacks to be distributed at no charge to cancer patients, while also supporting the development of a men’s cancer retreat to be hosted on Vancouver Island.
Their fundraising goal was to raise $3,000. They’re currently sitting at $22,000 raised. That’s not a typo. The banner (and, as a result, the pack) will be there at the event on September 24th.
Here’s a picture from before we all signed it:
Shoutout to sponsors
Events like this don’t come together without a lot of hard work on behalf of the organizers and sponsorship funding to help realize the dream.
I wouldn’t feel right posting about how amazing this experience was without also calling attention to the sponsors of the event:
- GI Cancers Alliance
- Fight Colorectal Cancer
- American Association for Cancer Research
- Global Colon Cancer Association
On the off chance that any members from those respective organizations read this: thank you. I can safely speak on behalf of everyone who attended and say that the event has left a lasting impression.
A life-changing experience
Without a doubt, this will be an event that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I can’t imagine that anyone who was able to attend would think differently.
Through great conversations that spanned the gamut of emotions, we reinforced the importance of camaraderie and brotherhood as we all navigate the hellscape of cancer.
These are the types of bonds that will withstand the test of time, help to lift and inspire others, and prove that men—when they allow themselves to be vulnerable—are stronger and better for it. Hence the Man Up to Cancer Motto: Open Heart. Warrior Spirit.
Whatever your current challenge or struggle, just remember to Keep Fucking Going.