Just over three decades ago, Commonweal co-founder Michael Lerner walked up the makeshift gangplank of a houseboat in Sausalito to meet a woman named Marion Saltman. She was a 70-year-old sand tray therapist, and that day she became the first person to sign up for the Cancer Help Program—a retreat for those with all stages of cancer—now celebrating its 30th year. 

“When we started, it was a huge experiment,” Mr. Lerner said of the program. “Anything outside of mainstream medical treatment alone was potentially viewed as quackery.” 

Today, the program is celebrated among holistic circles and beyond, and has been a model for other programs from Canada to Washington, D.C. The basic structure of the program hasn’t changed much over the years. 

“Little things change,” Mr. Lerner said. “We add a music evening, we subtract a poetry evening, we add an evening on art. But the core of it remains the same.”

Six times a year, eight people spend one week in historic buildings among Bishop pines, near bluffs overlooking RCA Beach just north of Bolinas. Participants are surrounded by sounds of wind and surf, and the fresh smells of salt air and coyote brush. Trails lead to the shore and a spare, weathered hut is open to the public for meditation and ceremony. 

During the retreat, participants receive information, community, and care including massage, yoga, gourmet vegetarian meals and group support sessions. Mr. Lerner leads four evening conversations: what brought each person to the retreat; what they will bring home; choices in healing, medical, and integrative and treatments; and pain, suffering, death and dying. These subjects weave throughout the other activities of the week. The goal is to heal—the spirit, if not the flesh.

“We absolutely don’t make medical claims,” said Mr. Lerner. “This is about helping people live as well as they can for as long as they can. And, if and when the time comes, to die the way they would like to die.”

In each eight-person session, two slots may be filled by a family member or loved one. But they must focus on their own inner work. “Saying, ‘My wife wants me to,’ isn’t good enough,” said Waz Thomas, program co-founder.

Community is a cornerstone of the retreat. The staff—many of whom have been with the program for over 10 years—cultivate a supportive, familial atmosphere. They dine and socialize with the participants, who in turn develop a rapport among one another and the staff. This sense of belonging can help assuage the feelings of anxiety, fear, loneliness and helplessness that inevitably accompany a cancer diagnosis. Many attendees arrive as strangers and leave as dear friends; a few romantic partnerships ensued. One group performed a symbolic marriage ceremony to one another at the meditation hut.

“This program is about being listened to, heard and not judged—we just try to meet people wherever they are at when they walk through the door,” said Arlene Allsman, the program coordinator. “We want participants to leave having felt loved and safe and heard.”

The participants’ fee is $2,460—half of the actual cost for each person. The rest is funded with donations. Scholarships are also available. The only requirement is that participants be healthy enough to attend, though some health crises have occurred mid-program. 

The Cancer Help Program was inspired by a similar program run by Dr. Dean Ornish, who found that coronary heart disease could be reversed through such retreats by improving the “lifestyle quartet” of diet, stress reduction, exercise and group support, Mr. Lerner said. He approached Mr. Ornish, a friend, about what other conditions might respond to the same model. 

The first healing retreats at Commonweal were for systemic lupus; next, for a group of elderly people from San Francisco (dubbed the Inner Astronauts). Despite positive results for both programs, there weren’t enough people interested to support a program. 

Then, Mr. Lerner’s father—distinguished political philosopher and reporter Max Lerner—was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. Mr. Lerner did “deep research” on cancer, and was encouraged by conversations with colleagues who agreed that a retreat could be beneficial. The program eventually had five co-founders: Mr. Thomas, an integral yoga instructor who came on board for the elderly wellness program; Ms. Remen, a medical doctor and author; Virginia Veach, a physical and family therapist; and Nischala Devi, a well-known yoga teacher. The first three are still with the program.

Commonweal’s board initially resisted what was then a radical idea, Mr. Lerner said. He was also warned that interest in integrative cancer therapies could ruin his professional credibility. Even the founders had trepidations about being responsible for eight people—many very ill—in a location that is an hour from the nearest hospital. 

“I was scared during the first program,” Mr. Lerner said. “I remember going home every night, hugging my wife, and feeling just how unbelievably precious life is.”

Since those rocky first days, the program has grown in renown. In 1993 it was the subject of an hour-long Bill Moyers documentary, Wounded Healers. Mr. Lerner published a book the next year titled “Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer.”

“This program is without any question the most powerful work I’ve had a chance to do,” Lerner said. 

Though for some the Cancer Help Program is the most public face of Commonweal, the organization supports a total of 15 diverse and vibrant programs, including Commonweal Gardens, The Institute for the Study of Health and Illness, The New School conversations, the Biomonitoring Resource Center, and the Juvenile Justice Program. 

The Cancer Help Program has generated additional programs. The Bay Area Young Survivors is a shorter retreat for young breast cancer survivors—generally under 45—who can’t take an entire week away from their careers and families. Healing Circles, which began two years ago, is open to anyone interested in providing high-quality support to people with cancer and other conditions. 

“Cancer and loss transform lives, and people need a place to find meaning in the midst of that,” Mr. Lerner said. “This is a tremendously vital and interesting part of our current work, and it’s deepening our understanding of how we do the Cancer Help Program.”