Talking about life, cancer, and life with cancer. These are not light topics. But when eight women battling the disease spent a few days together at Ojai’s Lavender Inn, a welcome weightlessness checked in. Perhaps their proximity to a flower known to alleviate anxiety, depression, and stress helped. Or maybe it was the opportunity for the ladies to lounge around in their pajamas, like they did back when their worries were much smaller.
The retreat was part of a new program called INNcourage, created by the Lavender Inn’s owner, Kathy Hartley. Women with cancer are provided an opportunity to explore healthy lifestyle options while relaxing in a supportive environment—a place where stress is denied a room key. One of the first events of its kind, Hartley plans to not only continue hosting annual INNcourage retreats, but also to introduce the idea to the California Association of Bed & Breakfast Inns in the hope that other properties will donate their settings for philanthropic causes.
“I just thought the inn would be a great place to help people who are going through chemotherapy get away, to think about something else and take care of themselves—especially people who can’t afford to,” said Hartley, who collaborated with the Ventura County Medical Resource Foundation, a group dedicated to enhancing the availability and quality of health care programs and services for all Ventura County residents. “We were honored to be a part of Kathy’s dream,” said Victoria Chandler, the foundation’s executive director. Chandler helped connect Hartley with medical oncologist Dr. Evan Slater MD and his staff at the Ventura County Medical Center Oncology Unit. Each of the participants selected for the program were patients of Dr. Slater.
It took just a month-and-a-half for the Lavender Inn and other local businesses to organize a variety of activities including a candlelight yoga stretch, facials, paraffin hand wax treatments, foot massages, and a makeup application tutorial. The event also included a cooking class that focused on healthy eating strategies and a daily diet of fine cuisine. At the conclusion of the retreat, husbands, family, and friends attended a going away party for the women, who went home with a gift bag of donated items.
One of the retreat’s pivotal events was a group life coach session initially planned as a series of one-on-one coaching sessions. After only hours of knowing one another, the women decided to do the session together. “It surprised me that they got so close so quickly,” said Hartley. During the session, the life coach touched on crucial topics for cancer patients such as self-care, finding opportunities during crisis, and letting other people take care of you. “Once people started sharing their stories, I was able to share things that I hadn’t been able to share with family or friends. I just felt like this big weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” said cancer survivor Sydnee Mortensen, who in 2005 was diagnosed with metastasized colon cancer that had spread into her liver and lungs.
Another participant, Patricia Pearson, said that words could barely express how healing the experience has been for her. But she tried to find the right ones, and succeeded: “Being at the Lavender Inn was a wonderland for my soul. I came home rested, and feel like I was part of a family.”