New documentary offers an opportunity for healing
Jamie Freeman - November 2, 2012
When business professionals mull over the idea of enrolling in his stress reduction program, Dal alum and spiritual teacher Timothy Walker says the most common excuse he hears is, “I’d like to do it, but I’m too busy.”
Cancer changes things. Those recently diagnosed with the disease say “Wait a minute, I’ve got to look again [and question] who am I and where am I going and what is my life about,” says Dr. Walker.
Thirteen years ago, Dr. Walker teamed up with Rob Rutledge, an associate professor at Dalhousie Faculty of Medicine, to form what would become the Healing and Cancer Foundation (HCF), a registered Canadian charity since 2009. Having treated more than 3,000 cancer patients, Dr. Rutledge brings the authority of an oncologist to HCF and describes his partnership with Dr. Walker as a “marriage of the science with [a] secular spirituality.”
Under the mandate of HCF, Drs. Walker and Rutledge organize public talks as outreach to cancer patients and weekend retreats designed to help those living with cancer or struggling with a recent diagnosis.
Identifying a need
Newly diagnosed cancer patients often don't know what medical services are out there or how to access them, or even whether they are “missing out on some home-run, cure-all medicine,” says Dr. Rutledge. They often lack the “skills of how to navigate the medical system, to advocate for one’s self and to make a real difference to one’s own health through the medical system,” he adds.
Accordingly, a key goal of HCF is to “get knowledge to people very early in the process [and to help them to] learn these essential skills,” says Dr. Rutledge. “People are under tremendous stress” when they first get diagnosed and this adds to the confusion and sense of helplessness with respect to taking their next step, notes Dr. Walker.
Dr. Rutledge says that while their program involves a mere weekend retreat, participants often describe it as “life altering” and leave “much more accepting, much more positive and much more proactive with how they approach their cancer situation.” The retreat’s activities enable participants to “be open with their emotions, [to] connect with each other, [to] hear each other’s stories [and to learn] how to approach a cancer diagnosis [with their] body, mind and spirit.”
Much of the weekend is dedicated to mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques offered by Dr. Walker. “People have a tendency to feel betrayed by their body, or to hate their body, or to feel that its a bad trip. So they want to rekindle that sense of loving themselves,” he says.
Recognizing that spirituality and health are not separate, Walker says that mindfulness meditation allows people to love their body “even if its in pain” and to “reach into the pain itself and change [their] subjective experience.” Participants are encouraged to view their diagnosis as an “opportunity to heal on the levels of body, mind and spirit,” he said.
A new documentary
The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation recently awarded HCF a grant to produce a documentary detailing their work. Filming commenced in April of this year and covered a retreat for those diagnosed with breast cancer. The film includes follow-up interviews, conducted in August, with several of the retreat participants. The film’s director, Dawn Harwood-Jones of Pink Dog Productions, says that the retreat introduced her to many amazing women.
“I wish I could have followed up with all 50 of them,” she says.
Each of the participants had been “dealt the huge wake up call” by first being confronted with their diagnosis, says Harwood-Jones. But Drs. Walker and Rutledge’s insights were “incredibly helpful” to the group, she says.
“They are not only inspired leaders but they’re so dedicated [and] have such profound respect for the people who come to these meetings.”
A key goal of HCF is to tap into the profound effects that can occur “when a person changes their perspective . . . literally you can be a different person after a cancer diagnosis,” says Dr. Rutledge.
Drs. Rutledge and Walker have even heard participants refer to their cancer as a “gift” in that it enabled them to radically re-evaluate their lives and priorities for the better.
“You learn from the illness,” says Dr. Walker. “It teaches you things that you needed to learn.”
For more information about Drs. Walker and Rutledge, The Healing and Cancer Foundation and their new documentary, please visit healingandcancer.org