Twenty-Five Years with the Commonweal Cancer Help Program
by Kyra Epstein, Commonweal Communications Manager
The Commonweal Cancer Help Program (CCHP) has long been seen as a foundation for Commonweal’s work in the world. We consider it to be at the “heart” of Commonweal’s work. The program is one of our longest-running programs with a supportive and skillful staff, many of whom have been a part of most or all of Commonweal’s 45-year pioneering history.
But for many, CCHP is still a mystery. What goes on at a CCHP retreat? What elements combine to offer the participants such a deep and transformative experience? Why does the model work―a model that has inspired so many and so many other projects, including the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC; Callanish Society in Vancouver; Harmony Hill in Washington State; our rapidly growing Healing Circles programs; and the virtual version of CCHP: Sanctuary. In this article, one long-time staff member, Katrina Mayo-Smith, offers some insight into CCHP’s mystery and power.
The story begins in 1986, when Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, Waz Thomas, and others joined Commonweal President Michael Lerner in founding the Cancer Help Program. Then, Bill Moyers brought the program to national attention with his 1993 series Healing and the Mind. By the late 1990s, CCHP had already been offering integrative cancer retreats for more than a decade. And another program, the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness (ISHI)―founded at Commonweal by CCHP’s medical director Rachel Naomi Remen―had a handful of years in operation as well.
At ISHI, Rachel was offering residential retreats for doctors and for medical students using a model based on the CCHP, and a young woman was hired to help as “house mother” at these retreats.
Just about 25 years later, you can still find Katrina Mayo-Smith offering her healing hands and heart at CCHP retreats.
Katrina has loved her work with CCHP over the years, but her connection to the program has not always been rosy: in 2006, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and participated in CCHP as a cancer patient. She sees that experience as something that offers her an internal belief in the program, and that has helped her in her work with others going through the experience.
“I love being a support person at the retreats: holding space for people, including the staff,” she said. “It’s hard to define what ‘holding space’ is, but it has more to do with being than doing. I try to support bringing ease and care to anyone who needs it, having conversations with people, taking time with people―staff and participants―valuing the relationships, and recognizing that this is important. These kinds of things are a container for the emotions and journeys of everyone there.”
Katrina has filled many roles during her decades with the CCHP. She started as a massage therapist, when one of the long-term massage therapists left, and a position came open. At one point, she shared the “house mother” role with another long-time massage therapist, Jnani Chapman, and that became something they did each time.
And then, for a while, she offered expressive arts to participants, using the creative process as a tool for inner exploration. In fact, the origami cranes, which have become a kind of practice at Commonweal, started with Katrina.
“When Lenore Lefer, a long-time psychotherapist at CCHP, was diagnosed with cancer, I wanted to make 1,000 cranes in her honor. Many other people wanted to help, and the cranes became something that they could do in support of Lenore,” she said.
Now, Katrina offers Sandtray at the retreats. Early on, she trained with Irene Gallwey, who innovated work with the Sandtray–a powerful experience that allows the unconscious to select and arrange objects in a sand tray―offering insight into ourselves.
“I remember one woman in the Sandtray room–her tray had a sweet little bunny in it. It meant so much to her. So often, something arises in a person that connects deep inside to the vitality of the psyche. People are looking for that vitality. They come weighed down with the concerns that cancer has given them. During the CCHP week, by turning to each other in the group, they often connect to their own aliveness. All of the program pieces are oriented to connecting people to their own path to healing.”
Katrina describes the process at CCHP as “laying out a banquet for people to choose from.” Some people benefit from the physical path: yoga and massage. Others find expressive arts or music, connecting with their creativity, helpful. Almost everyone finds support from being in a group of people going through a similar journey, surrounded by a strong staff.
“CCHP is a really hard thing to describe, it is an experience,” Katrina said. “It’s such meaningful and fulfilling work. To be able to meet people at such an authentic level–both those I work with and participants. Being attentive to ourselves and to each other, we are all in deep and tender places. We have to be in those places to serve the group. When meeting people at an authentic place–that is where love is.”