Shali’s Retreat Yourself West experience

May 28, 2012

Shali, our Eastern Program Coordinator, wrote this blog after attending Retreat Yourself West in Morley, AB from May 3-7, 2012.

Wow…Retreat Yourself West 2012 (RYW12); you really know how to touch a girl’s heart.


I just returned from Alberta, where I spent four days in the company of 24 young adult cancer survivors and supporters and seven facilitators/peer supporters. The Retreat was held at Nakoda on the Lake, a beautiful rustic lodge nestled in the Rockies.

I had attended three YACC Retreats in the past in a variety of roles: survivor, research assistant, and peer supporter. And now I had the privilege of attending as a YACC employee. I must say, my past experiences had set the bar high and I headed into the weekend with pretty high expectations.

Thankfully, RYW12 did not disappoint! For the facilitation team, the weekend officially kicked-off with a pre-retreat meeting on Wednesday evening at Wellspring Calgary’s beautiful Carma House (Thank you Wellspring Calgary–especially Anna and Patti for your continuous support). Over pizza and chicken wings (So delicious–why don’t we have Pizza 73 out east?), we familiarized ourselves with the Retreat program. Most of us were Retreat Yourself alumni, but we were delighted to welcome two new members into the fold: Scott Blanchard, a nurse at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, and Lindsay Drabiuk, a Spiritual Health Specialist at CancerCare Manitoba. Within no time, we were cracking jokes and bonding like a family.


On Thursday, the retreaters started to arrive by bus, plane, and car to the Holiday Inn hotel. It can be very intimidating to walk into a room where you don’t know anyone, but I was very impressed with how quickly people connected. Once we had everyone gathered, we boarded a bus and headed off to the Nakoda Lodge. I had seen pictures of the Lodge online, but I was still somewhat in awe when we arrived. What a perfect setting for Retreat Yourself! We had some time to settle into our surroundings and then met for a delicious dinner overlooking the lake and the mountains. After dinner, we had Opening Circle, a time to introduce ourselves and share our stories. As always, I was humbled and inspired by everyone’s willingness to be so open and vulnerable with a group of strangers. The circle felt very rich, very raw, and also very safe; I felt extremely lucky to be a part of it.


Friday was our first full day of the program. We had two small group discussions on isolation and physical changes/fatigue. One of the “pearls of wisdom” from the isolation discussion was, “Cupcakes are stupid/I miss cupcakes”.” Cupcakes represented the small talk that is so common in society (e.g., How’s the weather? Did you see Glee last night?). After being diagnosed with cancer, this kind of chit chat seems so trivial and you don’t want to engage in it when there are so many other much more important things to talk about. But at the same time, after being forced to talk about life and death issues for so long, you want to go back to talking about the small stuff, at least some of the time.

On Friday, we also had a presentation from Lauren Capozzi, a graduate student at the University of Calgary whose research focuses on physical activity and cancer survivors. Lauren was a very dynamic speaker and definitely motivated us to be more active! She stated that by doing 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week, we can reduce our risk of a cancer recurrence by 40 to 50 per cent! Whoa! I’ve never felt so excited to exercise!


During free time on Friday afternoon, many people went for a walk around the lake. The path was a bit precarious, but the beauty was solid. Others went swimming in the pool, played Apples to Apples, or simply relaxed.

Friday evening, we had the pleasure of listening to two of our peer supporters, Colin and Ashley, share their stories. Each of them brought their unique flavor to the presentations and inspired us to keep moving forward in our own cancer journeys. With his dry sense of humor that I love so much, Colin shared stories of his colorful past and showed how cancer can be the catalyst to positive change in terms of having a healthier lifestyle, refining our relationships, and showing us what’s really important in life. He also talked about the effect that YACC has had on him, such the introduction of a whole new vocabulary that includes words like “headspace”. Ashley gave us a brief overview of her personal journey, and then shared some important lessons she had learned along the way. Ashley works as an Occupational Therapist with small children and proved to us why she is perfect for this job when she gave us all treat bags that she had put together before the Retreat. The treat bags contained a variety of items that each symbolized a lesson we could apply to our lives after cancer. For example, a bouncy ball reminded us that we can bounce back, even if it takes a long time.


Friday night, we had free time. Many people enjoyed music and s’mores around the campfire (A huge thank you to Chris and Stephanie for bringing the s’mores supplies and to Arjun for playing guitar!).


On Saturday, we met in small groups to discuss fear of recurrence and death. It was an intense topic, but I think everyone appreciated having an opportunity to discuss it openly. Several pearls of wisdom emerged, including, “Share. Don’t compare. Get a check. Don’t freak.” Our small group discussion was followed by a presentation on spiritual and emotional health, facilitated by our facilitator, Lindsay. For me, this presentation was one giant pearl of wisdom–it helped me to look at a lot of things in new ways and left me feeling empowered to draw positive meaning out of life’s challenges.

During free time on Saturday, people went canoeing, hiking, or just relaxed. Despite the snow in the morning, the afternoon was beautiful and a perfect time to enjoy the incredible scenery.


Before supper, retreaters were invited to make vision boards on the topic of “reintrajectorization.” Despite the variance in feelings towards arts and crafts, most people seemed to really enjoy this activity. Surrounded by magazines, glitter, pipe cleaner, and feathers, it was hard not to feel like a kid again. After supper, people were encouraged to present their vision boards, and I really enjoyed seeing all the creative ways that people depicted their fears, their dreams, and their visions for their paths forward.


Saturday night was game night. Many people played Popcorn (a YACC favorite, thanks to Mikey and Bonnie Lang). It involves celebrities, charades, a bed sheet, and a whole lot of laughter. Despite feeling exhausted, I played a few rounds, and went to bed smiling at our silliness.


Sunday after breakfast, Jamie and I shared our stories with the group. Jamie’s cancer story is interwoven with a beautiful love story and offered a lot of hope for people who are facing fertility challenges as a result of cancer treatment. Jamie and her partner are currently in the process of becoming parents through a surrogate and she had lots of great information about this option to share with the group. Following our survivor presentations, Karine gave a presentation on YACC and gathered feedback on possibilities for future programs. This was followed by free time and a powerful closing circle.


After supper, we had our talent show. Hosted by the lovely Miss Ashley, the show entertained us all and made our stomachs hurt from laughing so much. It flowed into a series of songs (French and English), poetry, stupid human tricks, yoga moves, a slideshow, magic, and more. Towards the end, we surprised Shawnna with a beautiful birthday cake to celebrate her 30th birthday and then wrapped up with the “Muffin Song,” performed by Lenny “Free Time” Gallant. I think it’s safe to say that if we ever make a soundtrack for Retreat Yourself, this song will be the title track!

The night ended with an awesome slide show that Karine put together using pictures and videos collected throughout the weekend. The slide show did a great job of capturing the huge continuum of emotions and experiences that happened over the course of four days. The laughter, the tears, the friendships, the learning, and the letting go. How we manage to cram all of this into four days remains a mystery.

I want to extend a huge, heart-filled thank you to everyone who made RYW12 possible:

To the people who shaved their heads and those who donated to them: Thank you for helping us to raise the funds needed to offer our retreats!

To the staff at the Nakoda Lodge: Thank you for the wonderful hospitality and the delicious food!

And finally, to our retreaters: Thank you for having the courage to apply to attend RYW12. For many, it meant stepping out of your comfort zone and taking a risk. Thank you for making whatever adjustments you needed to be able to leave home for five days. I know it’s not always easy to arrange child/pet care, take time off work, or simply to step away from our routines. Thank you for coming with such an open heart, willing to share and receive in an honest and genuine way. Thank you for not hiding your tears; it’s nice to know that we’re not alone in our pain. And thank you for all the laughter; it truly is medicine for the soul.

Overall, RYW12 put a whole lotta lovin’ in my muffin, and for that, I am grateful!


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