Imagine being in a room where everyone has had the same shared experience. Some had it decades ago, a few had it less than a year ago like you. Now imagine a whole conference — a symposium if you will — where room after room of people spoke your language, knew what you’ve gone through and showed you, simply by being there, that normal life continues on.

That’s exactly what the past four days presented me with. Celebrating a Second Chance at Life sponsored by bmtinfonet.org threw so much positive energy my way, I didn’t even notice I was sleep deprived and running on Atlanta’s fuel, Coca-Cola. Meeting person after person who dealt with cancer then a bone marrow transplant was one of the best experiences I’ve had over the past year.

Whether it was the organizers of the event, some of whom were marrow recipients, or attendees like the young guy wearing a skull and crossbones bandana, or even the nutty evangelical who tried everything to make his doctors laugh, all of us dealt with the same exact thing. When you’ve been dangled over the abyss, it’s great to know others have hung out there too.

The scenes of intimacy, like the wife constantly scratching her husband’s GVHD ravaged back, reminded us that the true heroes in all of this weren’t us. They were the caregivers who sat bedside or took on single-parenting duties or cried alone, late at night. There was even a ceremony honoring our caregivers. I picked up a HERO bracelet for my wife.

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Throughout the seminar, I was known both as the official photographer and a survivor. At the end there were many tears during my slideshow and no, it wasn’t because I had done such a lousy job. Those accolades were wonderful, but the real benefit to me was my ability to pop into one conference room after another. While I was snapping photos and making sure to show every single presenter, I got caught up in their discussions and PowerPoints. I came away with tons of information about myself including why, Dear God, were my eyes all watery when I was supposedly suffering from Dry Eye?

There were statistics and facts and studies showing amazing longevity, including how one day soon my chances of getting cancer will be pretty much like everyone else’s. There was even some secretive, back-alley talk about new, incredible clinical trials that eliminated certain cancers altogether with just one pill or injection.

Early on, within the first few hours, I told someone, “these are my people.” I heard the phrase echoed another time during the day then at night, when a fellow leukemia survivor and transplantee was one of the featured singers, she told the crowd the same thing, “these are my people.”

I’ve belonged to a lot of groups, associations and loose-knit organizations over the years. After the past weekend, I am honored and priviledged to be a part of this merry band. Yes, the membership dues were steep and the initiation rituals sucked, but I am guaranteed lifetime access to the fitness center. And that’s going to be a mighty long time.

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