PUBLISHED: 9:04 PM on Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Women share experiences at cancer retreat
It's never easy to hear that you have cancer. But for many, learning to live with the disease is made easier with the support of family, friends and other survivors.

From February 25-27, a retreat will be held for female cancer survivors at the Shrine of St. Therese. Entitled A Retreat about Balance, the weekend is sponsored by the Cancer Connection, with help from Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary, Coastal Helicopters and the Waterfall Foundation.

The retreat, now in its second year, is the brainchild of Dr. Maureen Longworth, a physician at SEARHC and the recently opened Alaska Holistic Family Medicine. "My hope is that the retreat will enable women to find a level of comfort and balance as they walk the path of being a cancer survivor," she explained.

During the weekend, women take part in structured program segments, which include meditation exercises, energy balancing exercises and talking circles. "Each person has a turn to speak, though there is no pressure to speak or participate if they do not want to," said Longworth. "We have also built a lot of free time into the weekend so that the women can have some 'alone' time."

Terry Dean, who was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma a few months before attending last year's retreat, said that she enjoyed learning new things over the weekend. "I spent time in the talking circles and learned about energy balancing, which are things I had not done before," she said. "Because I am the primary caregiver for my husband, who is disabled, it was also a new thing for me to go someplace alone for the weekend-to have a little Terry-time."

In order for the women to be able to relax during the retreat, meals are provided by two local PEO chapters in Juneau and by Rainbow Foods. Several nurses also volunteer their time during the weekend to cook.

"We have a number of people volunteering their services, including massage therapists, healing touch therapists and cranial-sacral therapists," said Longworth. "Women can sign up to receive a free 30-minute bodywork session of their choice."

On Saturday night, the women participate in a beading circle, during which time they exchange beads that they have brought with the other survivors. "Last year, one woman brought beads that had been handcarved by her brother, who had passed away," said Longworth. "A Native woman from Nome brought ivory beads to exchange."

Women come from all over Alaska to participate, and come from all ethnic and age groups as well. "Last year, we had Filipino women, Native women, Hispanic and Caucasian women," said Longworth. "Their ages ranged between 20 and 80. Some were still bald from chemotherapy, and others hadn't had cancer in 20 years."

"Some had had cancer one time, or two times or six times, and they all had different types of cancer," she added. "Our group really ran the gamut; anyone could find their niche there."

"I was the only person there with my type of cancer-others had breast cancer, or brain cancer, or ovarian cancer," added Dean. "But cancer is cancer. And it's good to talk to others who have gone what you are going through."

Another advantage of the retreat, according to cancer survivor Roberta "Bobbie" Reyes, is that it enabled survivors to meet others on the local level. "You were dealing with people you'd see at church or at the grocery store, and they were a very cordial group," said the two-time cancer survivor. "Everyone was so nice and helpful."

Reyes has traveled outside for national and regional American Indian cancer retreats, and said that she found the camaraderie shared by such a diverse group of Alaskan women to be a welcome surprise. "I grew up under extremely racist conditions, at a time when there were still signs saying 'no Eskimos or dogs allowed,'" the 75-year-old explained. "In high school, the non-natives had their social times, and the Natives had theirs. But I'd never been in a mixed-race group that opened their hearts to one another."

Women who want to attend the retreat need to pre-register, and the cost is $50. "We do have scholarships available for people who can't pay, because we don't want to turn anyone away," said Longworth. To find out more or to register, those interested should call the Cancer Connection at 796-CARE (2273).

"I really encourage women, even if they don't normally participate in groups, to give it a try," said Longworth. "They'll learn a lot, and they'll have fun. In fact, one of our survivors said that this weekend was one of the top five experiences of her life."