“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Albert Einstein

My mom has been a three-time cancer survivor (breast cancer in 1966 and again in 1999).  In 1990, a routine dental check-up detected a tumor that was later diagnosed as malignant by an oral surgeon. We consulted with numerous doctors, a couple of whom wanted to hospitalize her immediately and perform radical neck surgery. Fortunately, we found Dr. Glenn Warner, who was Kitty Nordstrom’s oncologist. He was viewed as unconventional, and there was controversy around him, but he was just what we needed at the time. He encouraged us as a family to get a grip on our stress. He said the cancer didn’t come overnight and we didn’t need to take care of it overnight. So my folks went fishing; my brother and sister sought calming activities, and I did what relaxes me most: headed to the garden.

It was spring, and time to rototill. The hardest thing about rototilling is just getting the heavy, awkward machine started. Once I did that, however, I found I was having difficulty tilling in straight lines as I had always done before. A question suddenly came to me: Why must I till in straight lines? Internally, I granted the rototiller permission to go in any way it wanted and said that I would follow. I stopped hanging on so tightly and found that I was tilling in wide circles. Very soon I realized I was making a circle gardenwhich years later became the labyrinth garden. As I approached center, I had the realization that letting go of control and trusting the direction I was taking could be applied to so much more than this garden task.  

When our family regrouped to address Mom’s cancer, we agreed upon a surgical procedure somewhat less radical than the doctors had suggested earlier. Nonetheless, it was major surgery. I accompanied Mom see the head and neck surgeon on the top floor of the Nordstrom Tower at Swedish. He examined my mother closely, looked at me, then back at her. “You are weird,” he said to us both.

“I beg your pardon?” What a peculiar thing for a surgeon to say to us!

“You’re weird,” he repeated. “Take a look.” I had seen the grayish black tumor at the back of Mom’s molars, but when I looked this time, all I saw was pink, healthy tissue. The tumor was completely gone.  The surgeon couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t get us out of there fast enough because he didn’t know how to deal with this development. If only he had felt comfortable enough to explore this example of spontaneous healing. If only he had asked, “What did you do?  Tell me everything.” Sadly, it was beyond the scope of his comprehension or his view of reality to do that.

We were ecstatic! Practically dancing with joy as we went down the elevator. We called my dad from the lobby; he was thrilled beyond words. We also called Kitty Nordstrom, and she invited us to come right over and celebrate.

I tell this story often at cancer retreats. Miracles do happen. We hear about such things and never think they could happen to us. But they do. My mother experienced what was truly a spontaneous and complete remission. It opened my mind to all the possibilities out there, and I hope her story can do the same for others.

A New Beginning for Harmony Hill

The Commonweal Cancer Help Program was featured on the last part of the Bill Moyers’ PBS special “Healing and the Mind.” I was spellbound when I watched it, having just been through my mom’s cancer experience. If we had known about the Cancer Help Program, we would surely have tried to go there.

After I saw the PBS special, I couldn’t quit thinking about Commonweal. Finally, a few weeks later, I called them. They had been inundated with callshundreds from all across the country. They made a wise decision when they started their program, and that was to offer it no more than six times a year. They knew how intense it was and how easily facilitators could burn out. They always wanted to be able to look forward to the next session. They also limited their program to eight attendees.

It was clear that learning about Commonweal had touched a chord for many people and that they were being called (quite literally!) to another level of service. They launched what they termed “Tradecraft,” a workshop designed to share what they had learned with other centers that were interested in replicating it. They didn’t want to create a franchise and shared whatever they could to help other centers. As you might imagine, there was a lot of competition to get into this program. Harmony Hill was fortunate to be accepted into the very first training and went on to become one of the five most active programs in the country inspired by the Commonweal model.

Today, participants in Harmony Hill’s Cancer Program find strength, resiliency, camaraderie, and healing in the retreats. While cure may not be an outcome for some participants, healing happens in many different ways. Through group sharing and support sessions, creative arts, gentle movement, and exploration of lifestyle choices and strategies, attendees gain new perspective on their illness and tools to help them move forward to manage their health. Equally important, the retreats provide a setting to explore feelings and questions that people with cancer often have but haven’t been able to voice in a safe and nurturing environment.

In 2004, the Harmony Hill board of directors made the decision to offer the cancer and caregiver retreat to attendees at no cost. They recognized that even a modest registration fee was a barrier for many people who were facing the challenge of a cancer diagnosis, or of caring for a loved one with cancer. Even with good insurance, out-of-pocket costs and lost wages created a financial burden for many, and spending money to attend a cancer retreat seemed improbable. The board did not want anyone to be excluded from Harmony Hill due to financial constraints, nor did they want money worries to overshadow the benefits of the experience.