In September 2020, we began offering an online Cancer Help Program opportunity called SANCTUARY, and the feedback has been uniformly excellent.

SANCTUARY is limited to six participants at a time, and our focus is on creating a deeply healing experience. It’s a month-long program that meets on Zoom three times a week for 90 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

The next SANCTUARY program will take place from January 23 to February 17, 2023.

SANCTUARY is typically staffed by a physician with extensive experience counseling people with cancer, a psychotherapist, a yoga teacher, and Arlene Allsman, the CCHP/SANCTUARY coordinator and managing director of Commonweal.

The fee for the month-long SANCTUARY program is $480 and partial scholarships are available.

For more information, or to apply, contact Waz Thomas, our intake coordinator, at 415-868-0970 x316 or

Finding Healing Community

by Natalie Compagni Portis, SANCTUARY Co-Leader

March 23, 2021

We begin in silence, and then read a first poem. 

A Physics of Sudden Light
by Alberto Ríos

This is just about light, how suddenly
One comes upon it sometimes and is surprised.
In light, something is lifted.
That is the property of light,
And in it one weighs less.
A broad and wide leap of light
Encountered suddenly, for a moment–
You are not where you were

We speak our agreements, guided by presence, kindness, respect, deep listening, authenticity, and curiosity. We gaze out from our Zoom boxes, finding each other’s eyes and hearts. We listen deeply to one another as each participant tells their story and speaks of their intentions and hopes for our time together. Monday sessions focus on integrative medicine and healing practices, Wednesdays are for our support group, and Friday sessions are yoga and meditation practices. 

The sensitivity of the co-leaders to each person’s needs, the deep desire for attunement, and the intention for heartful, open presence guides us. I am so moved by the depth of connection we have found each time, with each unique group. Many have been skeptical of what would be possible in this new realm. Yet, we do not skate on the surface. It is not pro-forma. We are not stilted or limited by technology.


The 2021 World Happiness Report, a publication of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, says that our trust in each other seems to have been crucial in weathering the crisis of the pandemic – both as individuals and as societies. At Commonweal, we know that community connection, care, and support are critical in healing and to our wellbeing.

The isolation of the last year has challenged us all. For those living with cancer it has meant more isolation and fear at a time when support and care is so vital. So often, hearing the voices of others in similar circumstances can be a raft in lonely waters.

As our dear friend, Francis Weller says, “this is solitary work we cannot do alone.” This truth has been at the heart of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program (CCHP). For the last 40 years, the CCHP has offered this connection and support to all of those people who are living with cancer. When the pandemic arrived, Michael Lerner, in his inimitable way, immediately convened a conversation amongst the CCHP staff to explore how we might offer something virtually to those living with cancer. As James Richardson says, “If you can’t take the first step, take the second.” And so, we did.

We knew it would not be a substitute for the on-site program, but we trusted that we could still offer a place of refuge, full of meaning and of heartfelt connection, to those living with cancer. Our wish to serve was strong. I will say, for myself, that this work is what has sustained me over this last, long year. Being of service, and being in community, has buoyed me. For that, I am so grateful.

We did not know what we would find, yet we dove in; wanting to be of service, wanting to support, and willing to dwell in the not knowing together. Being willing to trust the process and grace held us. We began last August, offering an online retreat to six people living with cancer. We named this new program SANCTUARY. In this new format, we meet for 90 minutes, three times a week, for four weeks. This month we will convene our 4th SANCTUARY program. It has been a remarkable and truly beautiful journey. Each session we have six participants and four staff. Dr. John Laird, as our integrative medicine expert, Angela Madonia leading yoga, and Arlene Allsman and I co-leading the Wednesday group.

I have been dismayed in the past by the many ways technology can divide and colonize our attention. Yet here we are, together on Zoom. People are fully engaged. Zoom brings us into proximity and holds us in this truly sacred work. We are in each other’s homes, seeing puppies and artwork, holy objects, and healing spaces. We are connected and share deeply. Despite the fact that we could not walk on the bluff together, or share a meal or a cup of tea by the fire, we are truly together, and in community, and doing the sacred work of healing. Each participant is courageous in their willingness to be vulnerable and really speak their deepest truths. We find strength together, explore our grief together, write of our sorrows, and learn to be good friends to ourselves. We rest deeply, stretch and chant and discover the ways that yoga is accessible to all. Hope is found, and new possibilities for healing are discovered where some thought there were none.

What we have found in SANCTUARY is the extent that love and trust can be built and shared in a virtual world. It is remarkable how very possible it is to feel deeply seen and held and heard in a virtual space. We discovered that we could create community in a physically distanced, pandemic world. We found that we can face the loneliness better together. We brought light into the darkness and felt great joy in relationship. Each participant has come away having developed connections with other group members that they will carry with them always. We now have 18 more souls in the Commonweal Circle of Hearts.

by Jenny George

Speckled egg, brown egg, or sky blue with black marks—
Having broken once, the world re-forms
in miniature.
Over and over, in the nest
between two limbs; in the hollow of grass
at a marsh edge.
It’s relentless, the way it keeps trying
to return.