Tuesday, June 16, 2008, 9:30 PM
I’ve just finished our first full day at Commonweal. The first thing that comes to mind is the three mind-boggling meals we were served. For breakfast a buffet: oatmeal cooked with fruit, choice of two organic vegan non-gluten cereals (I had one and it was delicious), hard boiled eggs, stewed fruit, rice milk, soy milk and organic cow’s milk, three kinds of bread, a toaster, butter and three varieties of nut butter: peanut, almond and tahini. Lots of fresh and dried fruit. Yogi tea, a blend made with varied spices, vanilla, cinnamon and maple syrup…no actual tea, but incredibly delicious with a little milk in it. I drank it all day.
Lunch was a spinach frittata, a fresh tomato soup, and a salad with the most incredibly fresh greens, tomatoes and avocadoes. Dinner was an Indian feast with lentil dahl, vegetable subji, papadums, cucumber raita, naan bread, and four kinds of fresh chutney. Unbelievable bounty, colors and tastes. Dessert was non-dairy mango and coconut sorbet.
We also had morning and afternoon yoga classes—very gentle, healing yoga with a focus on breathing. Most of the poses are modified versions of what I already know how to do, but I learned a few new things about my breath (for instance, that my inhales are twice as long as my exhales) and a centering, mindfulness exercise in which the thumb strokes each finger in turn, up and down, on the in and outbreath, with a slight pause and pressure at the tip of the finger and between fingers.
After breakfast, we had our first group therapy session with Lenore Lefer, a wonderfully radiant and compassionate woman of 70, who told us the purpose of her life now, and for whatever time she has left, is to radiate joy. And she does. The eight of us sat in backjacks in a small room in the neighboring house with a beautiful altar Lenore had put together in the center.
Lenore set the ground rules for our meeting together. “Our mandate,” she said, “is to do whatever emotional and spiritual work is necessary to your healing.
“The rules are to speak deeply, to speak from the trust of your experience, to listen deeply and to be in the present moment. We’ll practice breathing. We’ll allow silence. We will not allow judgment. And we will not give advice. We hold what is shared here in confidentiality and with love.”
She continued, “This isn’t about information. It’s about the emotional underpinnings of what we’re all dealing with.”
Then we did one of several go-rounds. The first question was, “What is your name and what are you feeling right now?” The second question Lenore posed was, “Why are you really here?” adding, “There may be levels of answers to that question that you haven’t begun to be aware of.” And the third thing she asked us each to do was to tell our life story. Four of the eight of us did that today. The others will take their turn tomorrow.
I found this exercise particularly interesting. What was I going to choose to tell about myself? Was I going to repeat the habitual stories that I had told so many times? What parts of my history was I going to choose to reveal? What was important for this group of fellow travelers to know about me and where I come from?”
At the end of our morning together, Lenore said, “We come here as strangers. We disclose our truths. We all fall in love with each other.” And that bonding has begun.
We are getting to know each other (and our facilitators, masseuses, cooks, and teachers) over meals, walking between buildings, in group sessions, and in the hallways. One woman, who always wears a big furry hat and coat because she is always cold, called this place, “Cancer Camp,” and said, “It’s like Dayenu. Dayenu, if we just had one wonderful meal, that would have been enough. Dayenu, if we’d only had one massage, that would have been enough, but no this week we get three massages. Dayenu….and she went on.” We laughed. I have never felt so pampered in my life. They really are here to serve us.
Another woman, with metastatic breast cancer, said, “Life is a great adventure. I may die in the middle of it, but it’s a great adventure.” That seems to capture the spirit of this retreat and the people in it.
After lunch, I had my first massage and then a nap. Then more yoga and dinner. After dinner we met with Michael and Lenore for our evening session in which Michael went over some of the basic tenets of his book, “Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer.”
The five areas of choice Michael talks about are choices in healing, choices in conventional therapy, choices in complementary or alternative therapy, choices in facing pain and suffering, and choices in death and dying. Tonight we talked about the first three; tomorrow night we will talk about the last two.
Michael began by saying that all human beings in the second half of life will have to deal with these five areas of choice, not just cancer patients.
In defining healing, Michael said it differs fundamentally from curing, though there is some overlap. Healing is the movement toward wholeness that we experience throughout our lives. There are four intersecting arenas in which healing takes place—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Physical healing is what happens when a cut finger heals or a broken bone sets. Mental healing occurs when we work with ideas about ourselves or with the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. Emotional healing relates to our instinct to balance the emotional dimension of our lives. And spiritual healing is about touching a place beyond body and mind, the place of the witness, where we are whole and in a state of awareness.
Michael said, “We all have a vital energy in us that is responsible for our healing.” Then he asked us, “Do you think that you can influence the vital energy that is available?”
I said yes and others nodded. Lenore added, “It’s developmentally appropriate that we are constantly healing, that human beings become more of who they are as they mature. We naturally develop a greater sense of wholeness as we evolve.”
Michael chimed in, “The movement toward healing involves inhabiting rooms within us that we haven’t inhabited before.”
He went on, explaining that there a thousand ways to cultivate this interest in our own movement toward wholeness, and that the call to attend to such movement is louder when we are faced with a life-threatening illness.
“The purpose of your week with us,” he told us, “is to cultivate that awareness inside yourself and see what emerges.”
In opening the discussion on complementary therapies, Michael clearly stated that there is no complementary therapy that reliably cures cancer, while traditional Western therapies do cure some kinds of cancer. He strongly recommends that people do the Western therapies that can help them, but then he went on to say, “If you heal on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels,” he explained, “you become a healthier person with cancer. And healthier people live longer with the disease. People who work on these aspects of themselves live higher quality, longer lives, often outliving predictions and surprising their doctors.
“If you’re interested in living as long as you can,” Michael asked us, “Why not go for being as healthy as you can? Why not be curious about how far you can take your healing?”
Then he quoted Rachel Naomi Remen, the physician and author who also works out of Commonweal, “Even if you can’t extend life, you can expand life.”
That was the theme of the evening.
We also talked about patients who had spontaneous remissions, patients who far outlived their doctor’s predictions, diligent patients who died and unlikely patients who lived. We talked about the value of due diligence and intuition in making treatment choices. And we closed by talking about how each of us has to find the balance between being a cancer patient (putting energy into our healing) and finding joy in living fully.
There was a lot of food for thought in the evening. I am the most recently diagnosed person here so I have a lot to learn both from the facilitators and from my peers. On one hand, being with a number of women with metastatic breast cancer makes the possibility of a recurrence more real to me, but on the other, I am pleasantly surprised that I am enjoying the opportunity to see that people with all stages of cancer are just people—lovable, quirky, unique, and hungry to live.