Cancer Camp at Commonweal

By Christabel Cheung

GangsterLog.Stardate.10.30.2012 – If you lose fat at fat camp, maybe you lose cancer at cancer camp? Ok, so I’m not really that naïve, but I arrived at the Commonweal Cancer Help Program last week after having been on the waitlist for two years. So much life had happened since, that I carried only a vague memory of why I signed up in the first place. It’s a nationally recognized integrative medicine retreat for cancer led by Dr. Michael Lerner, with a reputation for being innovative and hard sought – offered only six times a year for eight people at each occurrence. Commonweal is nestled above a jagged scoop of rocky coastline in the bucolic Northern California town of Bolinas. Here, the sun rises each day through pulled-cotton fog, and waits in opposing radiance for the moon to light up before disappearing into the glistening ocean’s horizon to mark nightfall. What better place for poof-there-goes-your-cancer magic?

Wake, breathe, walk, meditate, stretch, yoga, massage, eat, listen, talk, laugh, cry, nap, learn, create, eat again, talk again, laugh again, sleep. This schedule was put on repeat for seven days, setting our self-proclaimed Breathing and Laughing Tribe of eight (a.k.a. BLT), on a steady course for deep healing.

Our tribe was outnumbered by a staff of accomplished healers, allowing me to rest my worries of managing pain, fatigue, dizzy spells and restricted diet; infusing me with enough well-balanced energy to be present with all my senses. I got help for a broad range of everyday assaults in my cancer recovery, including the relatively small indignities that I’ve been too embarrassed to keep raising. After the trauma of almost dying a couple of times, most everything else can be talked down to being minor in comparison. What I learned, however, is that each of these seemingly small issues actually has huge impact on my quality of life and potential for healing.

We shared some of our deepest wounds, sprinkling in humor to cope with some tough spots, while sitting with the discomfort that our current existence might be only a temporary stay from a harsher reality. Not wanting to hang onto false hope, nor wallow in false hopelessness. With our hearts in our hands, we found mutual compassion for living in this conundrum.

“I can’t stand it when people sing at me … ‘How are you?? You look great!’”

“I expect a new tumor every six years.”

“I have an 80 percent chance of having 2-3 years left to live.”

“My kids have run away from me.”

“I’m not afraid to die.”

“I am afraid to die.”

We told half-broken stories about life and cancer, seeking to find light in the cracks or at least spackle them over until the edges were as good as fused.

During one of our less-serious chats, I half-jokingly said that I was tired of the nonstop anti-cancer advice from ‘well-meaning’ people. Being posed unsolicited suggestions like, “Have you tried goji berries?” I’ve always wanted to spit back, “NO?!! … Thank god I met you.”

Well, this time, I want to say with zero sarcasm and the greatest sincerity possible to each member of our BLT tribe and the phenomenal team of healers at cancer camp … THANK GOD I MET EACH OF YOU!!!

Even though there was ultimately no cancer disappearing act, and I still don’t know whether I’ll be pushing daisies in two years, ten years or 50 years from now, there has been a huge shift in me. I know for sure that my body has the capacity to heal itself.

Actually, I’m already beginning to heal.

CHP Oct 2012 participants and staff

CHP Oct 2012 participants and staff- Christabel second row big smile

Since this writing, one of our BLT tribe passed away from ovarian cancer only a few months after our time at Commonweal. In 2013, another tribe member passed away from breast cancer, and in 2014, we lost the laughter of another tribe member to lung cancer … REST IN PARADISE, my dear friends. I’m blessed to have walked alongside you, even for a short time.