Let Your Hair Down… or Just Take It Off

A new convention for cancer survivors brings women together for a girls’ weekend in Nashville.

Women who have survived cancer are a pretty unique group. Having been tested physically, emotionally, and spiritually, survivors often find that life on the other side of a cancer diagnosis takes on greater meaning and launches them in a new direction. Sometimes the very foundations on which lives have been built give way as financial challenges, relationship stressors, and professional changes create a new and altered landscape. And yet, while the many changes that can emerge in the wake of a cancer diagnosis can be scary and challenging, they can also push women to make powerful and liberating choices as they forge new identities and move into their new lives with pride and empowerment.

It was the desire to honor these unique experiences and to provide support for women who have faced cancer that inspired Karen Shayne to found the National Women’s Survivors Convention, an annual conference created to offer education, inspiration, and entertainment. The inaugural convention will take place August 22 to 24 in Nashville, Tennessee, at Gaylord Opryland Resort.

Karen, a licensed healthcare administrator and two-time cancer survivor, began considering the idea several years ago as she contemplated the support resources currently available to female cancer survivors. “I go to a lot of survivor meetings and a lot of events, but it seemed to me that there was something missing, and I couldn’t figure it out,” she says. “Finally, one day I realized that what was missing was the entertainment component—and overall fun—that seemed to bring the women to a more comfortable place.”

Determined to meet this need with an event that would offer women the opportunity to engage with experts on a variety of survivorship topics in a relaxed, “girls’ weekend” environment, Karen started gathering a planning team to make it happen. As she did, a slogan for the event emerged: A place where you can let down your hair…or just take it off.

The program schedule that developed to honor this slogan is a testament to Karen’s passion to create a new model of survivorship event. Educational sessions, on topics ranging from finance to sex and intimacy to clinical advances to survivor-themed businesses to caregiver topics, were developed to be presented in a relaxed environment intended to encourage presenters to engage with audience members. “It was really important to me that PowerPoint presentations and podiums had no part in this,” Karen says. “I said to our AV guy, ‘I want it all Oprah-style—I want comfy chairs and coffee, and I want everyone to feel like it’s a safe environment, whether we’re talking about sexuality or finances.’”

As Karen traveled the country to recruit presenters, the enthusiasm for the conference and its mission was overwhelming. “Presenters sensed that it was a completely different style of event,” Karen says. “They recognized that it is different from anything they have done in the past. They were excited to interact with participants.” The appeal became obvious as the lineup of presenters grew to include world-renowned individuals, including breast cancer expert Susan Love, MD; Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller; and Otis W. Brawley, MD, chief medical officer and executive vice president of the American Cancer Society. Ever conscious of highlighting the entertainment component of the convention, additional events—including a 5K run/walk, a celebrity concert, a movie screening, a celebrity chef presentation, a chocolate reception, and a fashion show—were also included in the schedule.

Ultimately, Karen says, the goal of the three-day conference is to educate and inspire participants but also to lay the groundwork for future programs that can continue to support this population of women. “Our motto is We’re turning a mood into a movement,” she says, adding that the parent company of the convention, Women Survivors Alliance, would like to produce additional survivorship events for women nationally, offering high-quality content to benefit survivors. “There’s so much we can do. Our first priority is to see what is most needed—via this event—and then do events around the country, working with partners to serve survivors through treatment centers, churches, and other organizations.”

Excited to see the movement grow, Karen is looking forward to bringing so many survivors, caregivers, and presenters together in Nashville for this new event. “I want everyone to know—I really want it to be known that this is different,” she says. “We are going to have a great time. Bring your Kleenex and bring your laughter button. It is truly going to be a girls’ weekend out and a great learning experience.”