Cancer contenders find solace in nature and each other

Cancer survivors Kate Stivers and Aaron Dworkin take a moment together in the shade at Bayview Corner. - Patricia Duff / The Record
Cancer survivors Kate Stivers and Aaron Dworkin take a moment together in the shade at Bayview Corner.
— image credit: Patricia Duff / The Record

Imagine saying farewell to the hair coming off your fingertips in the wind and seeing birds use it for a nest.

Or tasting a tomato you have grown in your garden after months of not being able to eat anything.

Or eating a box of chocolates first thing in the morning after your chemo-ridden taste buds have returned.

These are the experiences about which cancer survivors have written.

Digging themselves out of the deep trenches of disease, people who have survived cancer can be compared to soldiers returning from the wreckage of war.

Coming home after winning the battle to some semblance of normalcy is sweet indeed, but even the revived taste of chocolate can be bittersweet.

No matter how extensive the sympathy of loving caretakers may be, these experiences are understood better by those who have shared them.

Local cancer survivor Aaron Dworkin understands the need to surround himself with the support of other survivors.

The 29-year-old Clinton resident was diagnosed with two unrelated forms of cancer at age 26, one a rare malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor and, a short time later, thyroid cancer, also rare in young men.

“I noticed there weren’t any support groups on the island for young cancer survivors,” Dworkin said.

“And the online support groups just don’t do the same thing for me.”

After searching various avenues of support, Dworkin appealed to Kate Stivers, a professional counselor and also a cancer survivor, who became Dworkin’s counselor.

“And she’s excellent. She lifted me out of this black hole that I was in,” Dworkin said.

Together the two decided to create a cancer survivors day of retreat for islanders.

“A Healing Retreat for Those Living with a Cancer Diagnosis” is from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15 at the Whidbey Institute at Chinook in Clinton.

The idea is to offer a day to honor and support the journey of those who are living with a cancer diagnosis. Stivers said this will be a day to release, replenish and renew the survivor’s fragile mind, body and spirit through the healing power of the natural world.

The retreat is a chance for reflection for anyone living with cancer. That includes those who are newly diagnosed, exploring treatment options, in treatment, in remission, experiencing a fear of reoccurrence, facing end-of-life issues, or who are trying to get their mind around their own cancer experience.

Stivers has extensive experience working with persons living with cancer and other life-challenging illnesses.

She will be co-facilitating at the retreat with Cathy Whitmire, who will conduct spiritual guidance sessions.

Whitmire, too, has worked with cancer patients as an interfaith hospital chaplain and as a pastoral counselor. Whitmire has a master’s of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School and trained as a spiritual guide at the Shalem Institute in Bethesda, Md. A Quaker, Whitmire regularly leads First Monday Contemplative Retreats at the Whidbey Institute and is the author of “Plain Living and Practicing Peace.”

“There’s something reassuring and satisfying about saying what you want to people who get it,” Stivers said.

Both Dworkin and Stivers agreed that, although family members are well-meaning and want to help, it’s hard for someone to talk about something they haven’t experienced.

“No matter how much your family wants to help, they want you to return to normal,” Stivers said.

“Normal is different for a survivor. Normal is never the same after cancer.”

It’s the mental, spiritual and physical rollercoaster from which a cancer patient has recently disembarked that makes it harder to return to the normal pace of life, Stivers explained.

After months of diagnosis, tests, treatments, and being surrounded by people who are focused on your care, everything stops and you are expected to go back to your life as it was, she said.

“That’s exactly how I felt,” Dworkin said. “Now what do I do?”

Dworkin said he was searching for people to reach out and talk to so he didn’t feel so alone. Finding the people at the Whidbey Institute helped. It was the healing agent of the land, a place of sanctuary rather than just the solitary feeling of being alone with his survival that revived him. It was Dworkin who had the idea for the survivor’s retreat.

“One lady I remember felt so great being there that she was in tears,” Dworkin said.

“She had traveled far to get to Whidbey Island, and it really helped her.”

“What struck me about Aaron,” Stivers said, “was that he didn’t stop with the one retreat. He followed through and wanted to continue them. That impressed me and the others at the Whidbey Institute.”

The Healing Retreat is volunteer-run and offers cancer patients and survivors group-sharing sessions, meditative movement, art projects, journaling and a closing circle which includes poetry, music and reflection. Participants can do as little or as much as they choose during their stay, and will each have a private room available to them for rest.

Stivers and Whitmire hope to guide participants to replenish the energy that may be drained by fear, worry, diagnoses, medications, scans and appointments, and to allow the natural beauty of the Chinook grounds to renew the spirit of those who come.

The retreat fee is $45, which includes lunch. Some reduced-fee slots are available, and the organizers said it’s important to them that all cancer patients and survivors are able to attend.

For information about accessibility and registration, contact the Whidbey Institute by calling 341-1884 or visit

Young cancer survivors are welcome to call Dworkin at 341-4112. Kate Stivers can also be reached for support to survivors of all ages at 331-7299.

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