The Cancer Help Program alumni circles emerged organically out of the semi-annual Alumni Day gatherings at Commonweal between 2008-2009. The ground floor training in listening without crosstalk, respecting differences of manner and opinion, and that ephemeral, undeniable attitude we can only call love was modeled and practiced during retreats. We had our shared experience to draw upon when we formed local circles.

Alumni with the desire and energy to organize groups and nurture them carefully until they became rooted enough to become self-sustaining were crucial in initiating the three circles. The organizers started with lists of interested people and set up meetings through email.

The San Francisco group was organized by Gail Weinstein (deceased) and Terri Mason in 2009. It lasted some months and was a good learning experience, but we weren’t able to keep it going, largely due to lack of a reliable meeting place and strong personality differences within the group. It was started up again by Anne Weissman (deceased), Merijane Block (who died last year), and Terri. This group is currently meeting and learning from each other. We usually meet in a home in San Francisco but occasionally meet in other members’ homes. People attend from as far away as San Jose.

The day’s facilitator and note taker are decided at the beginning of each meeting. We start the circle with a brief meditation and then we check in. Each person shares without interruption. Some people in the group are living with advanced illness and the attendant frustrations and setbacks. Some are past treatment and living the scan-to-scan life as best they can. Terri writes: “Sometimes, as I listen, I feel the heaviness of the collective troubles, and I worry that we will scare off newcomers to the group, but that rarely happens. All I can say is that there is something about just listening with caring hearts to each other that is a gift. I almost always feel lightened and encouraged by the time I leave.” People who want input or specific advice can request that during check-in and it will be offered after break.

We break for potluck snacks, conversation and laughter. When we come back together we address specific concerns and discuss themes that come up during our check-ins. Then we have announcements and a closing circle. We can have meetings on a specific topic but usually this format is the one we follow.

Over time we have realized that our group, and others that we have visited, have formed deeply supportive connections and generated friendships. There is a structure to them that welcomes newcomers and gives us support that may be rare in our outside lives.

“Commonweal is my spiritual home,” says Merijane. “Nowhere am I happier. Here I bring my truest, most authentic self. Our lives may be very different, but the one constant here is each other. This is the power of Commonweal, of the friendships and closeness that arise out of a shared sense of the tenuousness of life when you have, or have had, cancer.”

If you create a space by means of love, and nurture it well, sometimes depth can emerge without digging.

Merijane Block also contributed to this post. She lived with cancer for 25 years, 20 of them Stage IV. When she worked for pay, it was for non-profit organizations focused on education and advocacy for women with cancer. Afterward, she co-facilitated support groups, one for young adults with cancer, another for young women with breast cancer: Bay Area Young Survivors. Later, the main focus of her work in this realm was the CCHP alumni support group, and patient advocacy at a variety of levels. Her writing has appeared in Art. Rage.Us., Art and Writing by Women with Breast Cancer, The First Look, Lake: A Collection of Voices, and online at Birdland Journal.


Header photo by Corrine Bayley