Commonweal Cancer Help Program Alumni Circles

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By Kathleen Kramer

The North Bay Healing Circle has been meeting monthly since the summer of 2009. Our formation grew out of a one-day alumni retreat that was held by the Commonweal Cancer Help Program (CCHP) for those who had attended the week-long retreat. Michael Lerner, Commonweal’s co-founder, suggested that we might want to create peer-led geographically-linked groups to meet for mutual support on a regular basis, so we did. As of 2018, there are three San Francisco Bay Area alumni groups.

Like the other alumni groups, we share leadership through roles as facilitator, note-taker, and timekeeper, which change monthly. We decided early on to have one consistent place to meet, which was centrally located in Sonoma County. We meet in a participant’s home, which has proven to be a strengthening factor. Our format is similar to the other two alumni groups: After welcoming each other, we create a sacred space with a ritual candle and an opening silent or guided meditation. We then reach group consensus on agenda items and timing. The centerpiece of our gatherings is always our individual “check in,” in which each of us shares central life and health concerns, and we also share the precious gift of deep listening with each other.

After check-in, we explore and discuss topics that have emerged as themes, share resources, and give support when asked. We also attend to business matters when needed. For instance, we developed a list of agreements to help guide us in our process and address issues of confidentiality as well as other sticky wickets. We have invited guest speakers on topics of interest, shared poetry, and used art experiences as vehicles of self-exploration and expression. This includes an ongoing autobiographical scrapbook.

Over the years, the depth of our trust, sharing, and caring has increased, and it is as if we create a small intimate Cancer Help Program whenever we meet. We bring forth our most authentic selves, share what is most important, are present with our own and each other’s hearts, share joys and sorrows, and through this, do the soul work that feeds us most profoundly.

CCHP Alumni Healing Circles are very different than other professionally led programs of retreats and long or short-term support groups. First of all, all the members have participated in the  Cancer Help Program retreat. Additionally, there are no paid or volunteer staff, and there is no organizational structure responsible for the group. The group itself must maintain continuity, not a paid or assigned leader.

So far, a core group continues to evolve, and the decision to continue as an ongoing group (which always welcomes new members referred by Commonweal) remains strong. Fortunately, in all of our groups, we have many individuals with well-developed leadership skills, though most are not professionally licensed. Also importantly, attendance varies. Most people have active cancer, some people are very ill, and some are in remission. People’s level of involvement varies, people sometimes leave, and most importantly, they sometimes die.

The North Bay group was greatly affected in 2013-2014 when, in a 14 month period, seven of our members died. It brought Issues of loss and grieving to the forefront and raised enormous and complex questions. We worked well with our grief and these questions as a group, but at a certain point, we realized that the “mother ship” of Commonweal  needed to know and understand what we were going through and that, together, we could explore this rich and critically important territory. We decided to have a special one-day retreat on loss and grief and invited the other two Bay Area groups to join us. It was planned and facilitated by a volunteer committee of alumni from the three groups. Approximate 35 people attended, including Michael Lerner and other Commonweal staff. It was an extraordinary experience for all who came, and it became clear that the CCHP program would be wise to add more discussion regarding the effects of deaths in small close-knit healing circles such as ours.

Participants in our group are mostly from Sonoma County, but we welcome anyone north of San Francisco and have members as far north as Mendocino. We also welcome members from other Bay Area groups to join us whenever possible. We’ve had meetings with as many as 12 people and as few as two, with a current core group of about six. We’re deeply grateful for the shared blessing of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program and the immeasurable gifts that we nourish by being together.