This past weekend I went to a Harmony Hill Healing Retreat with my friend Lisa who recently found out she was cancer-free! Yay Lisa!
This three-day retreat gives cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers support and tools for healing and healthy living. They also offer unique retreats for families, couples, health professionals and more.
Harmony Hill is a wonderful word-of-mouth secret. When you get cancer it’s not like there’s some Encyclopedia of Cancer that you’re handed with all the answers. A lot of what you learn is through other patients as you meander your way through treatment. I didn’t know about these retreats until Lisa asked me to join. Thank you Lisa!
The best part of this secret is that these retreats are FREE. You heard me. FREE. Harmony Hill is celebrating their 30th anniversary this summer thanks to generous donors and sponsors. Their success also means there are waiting lists so I feel lucky to have attended.
Harmony Hill overlooks Hood Canal and the Olympic Mountains in Union, Washington. It reminded me of going to Camp Orkila as a kid with its rustic lodges and houses surrounded by forests, gardens and a beautiful water view. It even has a yurt!
There were 17 participants and they divided us into two groups. Most participants came with a companion, either a caregiver or fellow cancer buddy. Each group had a facilitator and a house mom. The house moms were retired nurses who helped out with anything you needed including coming to your rescue when you (Lisa!) forgot your toothbrush.
After we arrived we gathered in a circle and passed a rock to each other, saying our name, where we’re from and a word or two to describe what we hoped to get out of the retreat. “I’m Jen from Sammamish. Strength and hope.” There was a lot of circle time and rock passing throughout the weekend.
Initially they didn’t ask us to talk about what kind of cancer we had. You didn’t know who was a cancer patient or a companion. So the first day and a half, everyone used meal times to find out who was who and what type of cancer they had. Talk about awkward. It’s not like you can easily segue into “sooo… what kind of cancer do you have?”
At one meal I sat next to a mother and her young adult daughter. I knew the mom was the cancer patient because she wore the signature chemo hat. Trying to make conversation I asked how many more treatments she had left. She replied, “I don’t know.” Sensing my confusion she told me she has CUPS which is Cancer of Unknown Primary origin. It’s a rare disease where the cancer has spread in the body but the place where the cancer began is unknown. She told me she gets frustrated because she can’t say “I have breast cancer” or “I have ovarian cancer”. She looked exhausted and all I could muster at the moment was “that sucks”.
There were many types of cancers represented there. Some people were in active treatment and others in recovery. A few were a couple years out and cancer-free.
There was a 25-year-old man who had a rare pancreatic cancer. Most pancreatic cancer patients are in their sixties so his doctors are doing a lot of experiments to treat him and luckily it seems to be working since he’s now NED (No Evidence of Disease). Feeling “like an experiment” was a common theme during group discussions.
One woman’s cancer had invaded her jaw so she had the cancer removed and her jaw reconstructed. It was difficult for her to talk and she eats mostly liquids. She can’t work anymore but she needs the health insurance so she’s struggling about what to do.
You’d think that meeting all these people with such difficult situations would be depressing but it was actually quite uplifting. You couldn’t find more loving and positive people because they know the value of every day.
Each day we met in our groups and talked in a circle with a cozy fire, blankets, hot cups of tea and lots of tissue boxes. The facilitator, a young social worker, would ask us questions and if we wanted to answer, we’d take a heart-shaped rock to signify we had the floor. A little corny but it worked. Here’s a few of the questions:
“If you could tell the world about cancer, what would it be?”
“What’s your most surprising experience with cancer?”
“What makes you feel alive or normal?”
On the second day we split up into patient and caregiver groups so each could have time to talk more freely without each other present. Our patient group was led by the other facilitator who shared that he had stage 4 bladder cancer. He asked if we all wanted to share our cancer diagnosis. One by one everyone told their stories. Even though we are all cancer patients, we didn’t ask about prognosis. It was sort of understood that it was up to the person to share.
It was good to get out of my head and listen to other people’s experiences. Even though our cancers and treatments might be different, we shared a lot of the same emotions.
Lisa said at one point in a discussion that cancer can be a curse and a blessing. Uncertainty, frustration, lack of control, grief, fear and disappointment were just some of the words people used to describe their challenges with cancer. Many used words like perspective, connection and empowerment to describe how cancer has positively changed their lives.
For me, one of the gifts of cancer is what Harmony Hill calls “Accelerated Authenticity”. Basically, cancer has this powerful way of quickly revealing your true self.
Cancer has changed my life forever and I’m grateful. I don’t feel like the person I was just six months ago. I see things differently. I have this amazing love for life, for myself, and this great sense of connection to others.
But don’t expect that when you see me, I’ll be noticeably different. It’s inside me. All the thoughts about what I “should” be doing or what is “expected” of me are gone. I don’t care what “everyone else thinks”. I have this sense of clarity and strength, knowing that I can do anything I want and the assuredness to say what I don’t want. It’s an amazing sense of peace and freedom to just be me.
After dinner on Saturday night Lisa and I talked with another mother and daughter. Both were breast cancer patients and were recovering from double mastectomies and reconstruction. For each of them this was their second breast cancer recurrence and both had lumpectomies the first time. What are the odds of that? I can’t imagine going through chemo and surgery again. Whatever lingering doubts I had about having a double mastectomy are now gone.
eat and Move
A bell rings to let you know meals are ready at the cozy main house. Meals are family-style with home-made, locally sourced and primarily vegetarian dishes. I like meat and I’m not an adventurous vegetable eater but everything was delicious.
Healthy eating plays a critical role in fighting and preventing cancer. The challenge is that there’s so many different recommendations of what to eat which are often at odds with each other so food was a frequent topic of conversation. For instance I’m eating a Paleo diet but I’m not sure how rigid I want to be with dairy and gluten. Lisa is eating a plant-based diet but she is flexible with meat and dairy when needed.
As part of the retreat, a nutritionist gave a talk about native wild foods in the Pacific Northwest. We’re talking foraging for dandelions, nettles, and berries to make healthy foods. I had no idea you can eat the entire dandelion. We tried nettle mint tea which was tasty. I have a hard enough time making my Paleo dishes so I don’t think I’ll be foraging for nettles anytime soon.
Between meetings and eating, we did movement classes. Lots of breathing, gentle movement and relaxation. In one class, the lady next to me was snoring. Clearly she aced the class!
I was hoping for a more transformative experience out of the retreat and I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Initially it bothered me but I’ve realized it was exactly what I needed.
- I listened, supported and hopefully helped other people with cancer. It was nice to do something for someone else rather than for me.
- I connected with my friend Lisa. She has given me so much these past few months and we were finally able to spend time together. I love that she’s all about doing what gives her joy. Words of wisdom!
- I was inspired. It takes a lot of courage and strength to share your inner struggles with strangers. Many of the stories will stay with me forever.
- Most importantly, it helped me see how far I’ve come in such a short time. I’m already transforming!
If you know anyone with cancer or who is caring for someone with cancer, I highly recommend Harmony Hill.