For cancer patients, it can seem like life becomes trips to the hospital, medication, and survival mode. For Pam Toal, reality changed dramatically when she turned 50 and was diagnosed with Lymphoma. As a single mother of two, head of a large nonprofit, and an otherwise healthy woman, she was faced with big questions.
“I had been told (which most people are by their oncologist) to just go back to your old life and put it behind you. I thought that’s ridiculous, how's a person to do that? And why would I want to? I was frankly transformed by this experience and now I want to live differently. And so, coming to this retreat really inspired me to slow down in terms of self-care,” she reflects.
Luckily, Pam’s cancer was highly treatable and she recovered. But it was the support of a visit to Harmony Hill Healing Retreat that really changed how she saw the whole journey, and ultimately changed the course of her life.
Pam now lives and works there, and has the opportunity to help provide that same transformative experience for others in similar situations.
Located in Union, Washington, Harmony Hill offers two main forms of care, if you will: one that provides free retreats for current cancer patients and a family member, and one that offers self-care retreats and continuing education for healthcare professionals. The three-day cancer retreats offer not only an opportunity to get away and relax, but guided activities with a group of others affected by cancer to provide emotional, spiritual, and community support.
That last piece, Pam says, is a big one.
“One of the key outcomes we help people experience is a decreased sense of isolation -- that they are not alone. Having cancer is such an isolating experience; even when you’re feeling loved it can still feel isolating. So, when people come here, they come with all stages of cancer.”
In coming to Harmony Hill, patients aren’t coming to be “treated” necessarily -- they’re coming to be nurtured, nourished, supported, and inspired. “No matter what their prognosis is for their life,” Pam says, “they can still heal from the trauma of cancer. It’s really powerful to witness and see the joy it brings.”
Part of that healing includes supporting the patient’s friends and family members directly. “We really encourage people to bring a companion, because their loved one or friend is going through the experience as well. They have their own journey, but they need these tools oftentimes even more than the person with cancer in their body. So, that’s another thing that we hold dear to our mission; to help transform people’s lives includes a family member or a loved one.”
Although Harmony Hill isn’t providing medical cancer treatment, the center and its staff are committed to treating the aspects of people that often get missed in traditional medical settings: the heart and soul. Art, yoga, guided imagery, group sessions - becoming a cancer patient doesn’t mean the end of life’s richness.
As one participant said in a testimonial, “My husband and I came to Harmony Hill dying of cancer. We left living with cancer - and that made all the difference.”
Pam has now slowed down her pace of life and supports Harmony Hill in its ever-growing programs, including bringing support programs into the hospitals in local communities.
“People don’t want to leave. I remember feeling this way, you don’t want to forget what you learned, and you want to keep your healing going, your learning going. But you can also just get wrapped in your busy life when you leave, understandably. So, what we started doing a few years ago is we created a program called Cancer Wellness Program.”
Through this community outreach, Harmony Hill continues to provide support for survivors and their families with free programming. And the giving - and healing - continues.
“[With cancer] you don’t have a choice,” Pam said. “You are forced to look at your mortality in the mirror, and you can think of that as a gift. I just look at it as that’s my experience and a lot of good things have come from it, absolutely. It’s helped me be freer and take more risks in a way that I may not have otherwise, to have adventure, to try anything, to make change.”
Thanks to Pam’s positivity and the support of many generous staff and donors, Harmony Hill continues to change the way cancer patients are cared for. And that’s a beautiful thing.