I emigrated from Scotland in 1984 to work as a nurse at the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Vancouver. There, I learned that cancer is an undiscriminating disease, affecting a person of any age, gender, ethnicity, and lifestyle. The cancer care system is necessarily oriented toward a person’s physical body, treating the disease and managing the challenging effects of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, yet it wasn’t long before I knew that something was missing for me. I longed to be able to quell fears and comfort sorrows, to help people thrive in a radically changed life or help them face the end of life with a more peaceful mind and heart.

In 1990, I went back to university for a master’s degree in nursing in the hopes that more education would help me find new ways to foster healing. My studies did help, but I found the way forward in 1993 while watching the Bill Moyers TV series “Healing and the Mind,” which described the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas, California, led by Rachel Naomi Remen and Michael Lerner. I sensed that my life was about to change, and the very next morning, I phoned Commonweal and registered for an upcoming workshop to learn about developing a cancer retreat program in Canada.

Upon returning, I gathered friends and colleagues who soon became the core group of Callanish. The first Callanish retreat was held in 1995 by a volunteer team of multidisciplinary oncology professionals. In 1997, charitable status was granted, and week-long retreats have been held four times a year ever since. In 2004, a home space in Vancouver was created to inspire the ongoing work of past retreat participants and their loved ones. The Callanish community has continued to evolve organically, responding to the needs of its members and guided by intuitive leadership. Callanish is only one of two programs of its kind in Canada.

Together, we have found our way, retreat after retreat. Our community has grown, and we are still learning today from this work that we feel privileged to do. I sincerely hope that, through the wisdom of retreat participants—our greatest teachers, our team can offer those who cross our threshold a road map to a new place in life with greater peace and happiness.

Cancer is a disease that affects every aspect of life, but it doesn’t have to define who we are. We can make our lives and our deaths matter by the compassionate ways we care for ourselves and one another.

Janie Brown