At the start of April this year, I found myself nervously crossing a yellow line in the carpet at San Francisco International Airport, ready to present my passport to a border guard. As he looked through the pages of my passport, he asked what brought me to the US.
“I’m attending a retreat for people who work in cancer support organisations,” I told him.
He paused for a minute – always a nerve-wracking moment at the border, especially these days – and then asked me if I’d experienced cancer personally. I explained to him that I’d had non-Hodgkin lymphoma nine years ago but that I was doing well now. He paused again, stamped my passport and told me that he would ‘thank God’ for my health. And then he sent me on my way. It was not at all the grilling I was expecting, and that pretty much set the scene for the rest of my week in California!
What brought me to California in the first place was being selected to join A Fresh Chapter’s ReFresh Retreat for Leaders. A Fresh Chapter is a US charity that combines volunteering in the US and internationally with the aims of reframing adversity, fostering connections, and promoting personal growth and development. Their ReFresh retreat is unique in that it aims to provide support to ‘cancer advocates’ – the people who work in cancer care and support – and to give them time and space to reflect on their work, develop new leadership skills, and gain fresh perspectives.
When I heard about ReFresh from a friend of mine, I knew that I wanted to go. I love my work at Shine and have worked hard for the last seven years, but it’s not always easy. Having experienced the death of more than a few of our Shiny people over the years, I thought it was probably a good time to take a short break.
It’s pretty hard to summarise a five-day retreat. We covered a huge amount of ground, worked with a heap of different tools, and had some much-needed time for reflection. Having said that, a few things have really stuck with me and I thought I’d share them here.
The value of gratitude
This is very un-British (in fact, the entire retreat was pretty free from both British irony and sarcasm – but in a good way!), but we spent quite a bit of time at the retreat thinking about gratitude and how we recognise it. On the second day of the retreat, we woke up early and headed to Glide, a charity that feeds the homeless in San Francisco. We spent a few hours cooking and serving food to Glide’s clients. Homelessness is a huge issue in San Francisco and one of the things that had struck me in my wanderings in the city was that so many of the people on the streets were not only homeless but also very clearly
physically or mentally ill (or both). If you’re ever looking to feel grateful about the NHS, bearing witness to sick people living on the streets is a pretty good reminder of why we need to fight to keep the NHS working.
I also came out of my experience at Glide grateful that I hadn’t taken up a job in catering: while I was smugly chopping onions for a tuna salad, the knife slipped and I cut my thumb open. ‘You’re OFF THE KNIVES!’ yelled Bobby, one of the managers, in a very good-natured way. He then had me dip chicken breasts into breadcrumbs for chicken parmigiana – a task that involved absolutely no sharp objects! Working at Glide was also a good reminder of how we can connect to people with vastly different experiences to us. As we were sweating in the kitchen, my ReFresh buddies and I were often interrupted by Glide clients who wanted to share a joke or two. Given the huge societal divides we’re experiencing in both the US and the UK, it felt pretty good just to be able to laugh with others, human to human. And I felt grateful.
I know that listening is important. I’ve done training in coaching and facilitation, and have been taught in numerous different ways about the value of listening. But when I’m busy, I forget. I lose my curiosity and stop listening because I feel like I’m short on time and I have stuff to do. One of the best things about the retreat was having the chance to speak less and sit back and listen, and also to retrain myself in the art of being curious – in other words, to hold and create the space for others to tell their stories. On the first day we were reminded that we didn’t always need to dive into our ‘mental filing cabinets’ to find a story or anecdote equivalent to the one being shared by someone else. Sometimes it’s enough to sit, listen, ask the odd question or even be silent. Everyone on the retreat had had their own experiences of cancer, but they were also hugely interesting people. By trying hard to listen, I feel like I learned a lot more than I might otherwise have done in five short days.
It’s easier to do than to feel
We heard lots of words of wisdom while we were away, but this one sentence really stuck with me. I like being busy, but lately I’ve been piling things up without giving myself time to think or feel. Part of this, I realised, is because letting myself feel means that I have to let myself feel sad about friends I’ve lost over the years – amazing, spirited, and funny people who made life better for everyone. Cancer, like any major illness, is unfair and quite frankly, I don’t like thinking about its unfairness. However, this approach also means I don’t get to think about all the good times I’ve had with my missing friends, and it also means that I exhaust myself. My boom/bust cycle could use an overhaul so I’m hoping the rest of this year might be slightly more relaxed. We’ll see…!
Perhaps the most valuable thing for me though was spending five days reminding myself that, in these troubled times, the world is still full of good people. Sometimes it can feel like cancer takes up a lot of space in my life, and although everyone on the retreat either had had cancer or worked in cancer support, we spent a lot of time talking about other things and I learned a ton! Almost as valuable as the Fresh Chapter tools were the conversations I had about everything from women’s cycling and how to save yourself from a mountain lion attack, to why sloths sometimes visit libraries in the Midwest and how to make balloon astronauts.
And finally: it was a real treat for me to be at an event that I wasn’t organising! If the schedule was running late, or the food wasn’t quite right, I felt relieved that I didn’t have to deal with it (and huge thanks to Terri, Janet, and Dana who did have to deal with it all)! As a tiny charity, Shine runs a large number of events and that means that we’re often simultaneously facilitating discussions on serious topics while worrying whether the food order will arrive in time for lunch. Having a break from the everyday, and a chance to think about how the tools used by a Fresh Chapter could be applied to the UK, was really valuable. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
If you’re working in cancer support or are coping with cancer yourself, make sure to check out A Fresh Chapter’s programmes!