Starting Commonweal and Healing Circles


When my father developed cancer in 1980, I started looking for ways to help him. I was already interested in integrative medicine and spent several years exploring integrative cancer therapies. At that time, they were considered quack medicine. My mentors warned me that I could destroy my reputation. Staring in 1983, I traveled extensively in the U.S., Europe, Mexico, and Japan exploring integrative cancer therapies. At the same time, I became a student of yoga. My friend, Dean Ornish, had recently demonstrated that a yoga-based program could reverse coronary artery disease. We began to hold yoga-based retreats at Commonweal, first for people with Systemic Lupus Disease ,and later for the elderly. Then I met Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. Together we envisioned offering retreats for people with cancer. The first Commonweal Cancer Help Program took place in October 1985. Over the past 33 years, we’ve held more than 200 week-long Cancer Help Programs.

In 1993, Bill Moyers and film-maker David Grubin released a PBS series “Healing and the Mind.” The last segment of the five-part series was a film about the Cancer Help Program called “Wounded Healers.” Moyers also interviewed Rachel Remen and me for his book by the same name. The series won awards and was shown repeatedly on PBS stations across the country. In 2008, David Servan-Schreiber’s book Anti-Cancer was released in the U.S and widely read. He also spoke of his experience in the Cancer Help Program. Rachel Remen’s books Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings were also widely read, as was my book Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Cancer Therapies. We never advertised the Cancer Help Program. We only hold six week-long retreats each year, each for eight participants. By word-of-mouth, through these books, articles, talks, and conversations, word spread.

Shortly after Moyers released “Healing and the Mind,” a number of other centers emerged in the U.S., Canada, and France based on the Cancer Help Program. While some of these programs ultimately came to an end, a few continued. Callanish in Vancouver, British Columbia, was founded by Janie Brown. Harmony Hill in Union, Washington, was founded by Gretchen Schodde. Smith Center for Healing and the Arts was founded by Barbara Smith Coleman and me.

A few years ago, I began to explore how we could bring the soul of the Cancer Help Program into a no-to-low cost, community-based model. Diana and Kelly Lindsay in Langley and David Spaw and Susan Rafte in Houston have done just that, adding Healing Circles Langley and Healing Circles Houston to our Commonweal family. All the Commonweal-inspired retreat centers have also come together to co-create Healing Circles Global. Our intention was to create a learning community dedicated to deep intentional healing. We did not want to disseminate a single model of deep intentional healing, but rather to find like-minded people with whom we shared a sense of community and affinity, and to learn from each other. We are thrilled that both Healing Circles and a new cancer retreat program have started in Jerusalem.

Our sense was that if it provides refuge, touches your heart, and guides you on your path, it is a healing circle. We honor and recognize all those who came before who used healing circles. Some of our inspirations are Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea of PeerSpirit and Parker Palmer and the Center for Courage and Renewal.

We are allowing Healing Circles to grow at a natural, organic pace. As Christina Baldwin has so beautifully said, “Move only at the speed of guidance.” That is what we try to do.

At Commonweal, a whole cluster of programs have developed, were inspired by, or aligned with the Cancer Help Program. They include Healing Circles Langley and Healing Circles Houston, the Cancer Help Program Alumni Circles, the Bay Area Young Survivors, and the Mets in the City retreats, the Healing Kitchens Institute, the Healing Yoga Foundation, the New School at Commonweal (which contains dozens of podcasts and videos related to cancer and healing), the Natura Institute, and the Foundation for Embodied Medicine. You can learn more about each at