Healing with Cancer: Work at the Heart of Commonweal


December 29, 2021


by Michael Lerner, President, Commonweal

Oren often says that the Commonweal Cancer Help Program lies at the heart of Commonweal’s work. I believe that to be true. This cancer work has been the central dharmic work of my life. 

Cancer touches almost every family, and close to half of all Americans. Finding paths to deep healing with cancer is a worthy purpose. It turns out that these paths also serve with almost every other kind of human wound or loss. It is just that a cancer diagnosis carries a particular freight in our culture that deepens the wound and deepens the capacity for soul response.

We held our first week-long Cancer Help Program retreat in October 1976. I’ve co-led almost all of the 212 retreats since. When COVID-19 locked us down, we knew this central work needed to continue. 

The Sanctuary program was born out of that necessity. Sanctuary is a virtual program, based on the Cancer Help Program model. The month-long retreats meet virtually three times a week for two hours. Our four retreats to date have been profoundly effective. Sanctuary also enables people from across the country and beyond to participate who could never come to Commonweal.

In Sanctuary, we take only six participants at a time (we take eight participants in the in-person Cancer Help Program). There’s something about the smaller size that we think works better on-line. Sanctuary is headed by Arlene Allsman, who also coordinates the Cancer Help Program, and includes psychotherapist Natalie Portis, physician John Laird, M.D., and yoga teacher Angela Madonia.

Meanwhile, our Healing Circles Global work has seen incredible growth over the past year. The impulse for Healing Circles grew directly out of the Cancer Help Program, and now includes circles for people with cancer as well as people with many other forms of loss. Healing Circles Global is co-led by Diana Lindsay and Oren Slozberg with a deeply gifted leadership team and circle leaders around the world.

The fourth dimension of our cancer work is our Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies website: The site will be reborn in the first quarter of 2022 as a brand new website: This has been an immense project, co-led by Miki Scheidel and Nancy Hepp, with a very able staff that includes senior researcher Laura Pole and researcher/writer Maria Williams. We have the best information on integrative cancer therapies on the web with peer reviewed evaluations of more than 90 integrative therapies. The new site will make it far more accessible.

As I write in October, we are completing our 212th in-person Cancer Help Program, the first in 18 months. We have moved the retreat outdoors with rigorous safety precautions. 

Natalie Portis is our psychotherapist and co-leader on this retreat. Arlene Allsman has done an extraordinary job moving the entire retreat outdoors. The power of nature, the full moon, and the first rain on this parched land in months have all contributed to the deep beauty of this renewed Cancer Help Program.

We are grateful beyond words for your 35 years of dedicated support.

Find out more about the Commonweal Cancer Help Program on their website.

Photo: Hillary Goidell

More From Commonweal