Cancer Wellness House: Healing the Whole Community
Back in the ’60s, when my aunt was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer (and lived with it for 25 years), and my uncle with pancreatic cancer, that information was for adults only. Cancer was one of those things you didn’t talk about, and we kids were never to mention it to the people living with it, or to their families. It was considered insensitive, even rude. Had I not accidentally overheard my parents talking about my uncle’s prognosis, I would never have known why or how he suddenly passed one day three months later.
When I reflect on that time, I wonder about the tremendous pressure on both my aunt and uncle, and on their families, who weren’t supposed to know what was going on. But of course, we did know something was off. Why did my uncle stop going to work? Why was he so thin? And why did my aunt spend so much time in bed? How did they, their spouses and families get emotional support? Beyond conventional treatment of the patient’s physical bodies, they didn’t.
Out in the Open
These days cancer is part of our national health care conversation. You’d be hard pressed to find a person whose life has not been directly or indirectly affected by cancer. It’s okay to talk about it now, and we are moving toward a model where building a network of support for cancer survivors and their families and friends is mainstream.
Salt Lake City’s Cancer Wellness House (CWH), founded in 1997, has been at the forefront of this city’s movement toward a multi-dimensional approach to healing the whole person and his/her community of loved ones, and keeping the conversation flowing. From the beginning, CWH brought together mind/body wellness support, social support and comprehensive wellness counseling, to create a haven for each survivor’s community.
A charming vintage house, CWH feels like home as soon as you walk in the door. Overstuffed chairs invite friendly conversation in the spacious living room. A cozy kitchen is set up for potluck dinners. The backyard garden, with its peaceful meditation garden and community vegetables and herbs, gives nourishment to mind and body. It is a home in every sense of the word.
Cancer Wellness House is fueled by generosity. Except for Cancer Wellness House’s full-time executive director, Terri Goldstein, and its program director, Cliff Uckerman (MSW), all the house’s activities are fueled by volunteer energy. Says Terri, “Everything—landscaping, cleaning and painting; yoga and meditation; acupuncture and counseling sessions; greeting, welcoming and orienting of new members; the design of the counseling rooms—is all contributed by volunteers.”
CWH gives special attention to kids (aged 5 through 11) and teens (12 and above), with their Kids Club and Teens Club. These clubs give kids and teens living with cancer, or who are living with a cancer survivor, a chance to spend time with friends whose lives look like theirs, and whose lives have changed in ways that are sometimes hard to understand. The Kids Club meets at CWH, while the Teens Club goes off site once or twice a month on outings to places like the planetarium, skating rink, bowling alley or Utah Arts Festival.
“The point is to help them during a stressful time,” says Terri. “Parents think kids don’t hear when they talk about cancer, but they absolutely do. Kids whose parents or siblings are dealing with cancer are more likely to have a hard time in school. We want to keep them emotionally healthy. We want to keep them well, even if they themselves have cancer.”
Yoga and meditation have been central to CWH’s program since the beginning. I taught yoga at CWH for their first three years, and teachers from the Kanzeon Zen Center provided meditation instruction. Those first yoga classes were held in what was probably once a small bedroom upstairs in the house. Now, the back yard houses beautiful, dedicated yoga and meditation room, complete with an outdoor pavilion and labyrinth (both recently redone by an Eagle Scout and friend of CWH). In addition to yoga and meditation, volunteers offer acupuncture, massage and Pilates sessions.
Cancer Wellness House and its main sponsor, Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, represent the marriage of Western medicine and holistic methods. The original house and the recently added, still-in-process house next door, are owned by the medical center. Salt Lake Regional rents the properties to CWH for $1 per year—yet another crucial act of generosity that keeps the facility vital and viable.
“My greatest love is the people and families—the volunteers that are so inspired to make a difference,” says Terri. “Each person has a contribution to make, whether it’s painting, massage, life coaching or cleaning toilets, everyone makes a difference. We are very much a family.”
From October through December 2012, Hugger Mugger Yoga Products will donate one percent of our net sales to Cancer Wellness House.