When Karin Cooke was diagnosed with cervical cancer, she felt anger at many levels: betrayal at her own body, which she had taken such good care of; betrayal by her doctor who didn’t give her the correct diagnosis; betrayal at life in general.
“I had studied mind and body healing for years, and I didn’t have a chance to put those practices to work,” said Cooke, who is a registered nurse. Her choice to have a hysterectomy saved her from cancer, but it made Cooke determined to research and learn even more about various modalities of healing. In order to help her own healing, she put together a retreat for herself in Washington state, and let it all out.
“I did qi gong, meditated, yelled, laughed and cried,” Cooke said, “And after four days I felt so good.”
Cooke was also a caregiver for her first husband. Diagnosed with cancer while they had two young children, he was determined to live so he could see his kids graduate from high school. For 12 years, he was on chemotherapy, and Cooke cared for him to the end of his life.
With all of this life experience, research in alternative therapies, experience with Western medicine and being a cancer survivor herself, Cooke decided she wanted to help others by opening a retreat center. With her second husband Lew Whitney, they have run Hawi-based Kokolulu Farm and Cancer Retreat Center since 2006.
“Before this, Karin was working with people with substance abuse, but she told me she wanted to work with healthy people,” Whitney said. “After I asked her what she meant, she said she wanted to help those diagnosed with cancer.”
Whitney brings his experience as a counselor, teacher, farmer and body worker to Kokolulu. Certified as a natural farmer in Korean natural farming, the center’s gardens and orchards on seven acres provide 70 to 80 percent of the food prepared there. Cooke and her husband believe that the more people get away from eating processed foods toward eating whole foods, the better.
On the front porch of the center last week, breakfast is served to retreat participants; fresh papaya, oranges and red grapefruit complement the whole grain hot cereal made with whole oats, millet, buckwheat, amaranth and cinnamon. Cooke explained how she soaked the grain overnight, that it takes the oats to cook the longest, and about the nutritional value in eating whole grains.
Debra Heinz of Keaau attended the five-day retreat and said she learned a lot about nutrition and diet among many other tools.
“When I came here, I was introduced to a lot of things that I knew only a little about. Both Lew and Karin have given me tools for re-balancing my body, mind and spirit,” Heinz said. “It was one of the goals I had when I came here.”
When someone is first diagnosed with cancer, life can become overwhelming, Cooke explained. Trying to balance daily life with doctor’s appointments, huge amounts of information which many times conflict each other, and the emotions that rise up can create even more stress. A residential retreat center with knowledgeable leaders can help narrow down all of the various options.
“I came here confused and looking for help,” said Marianne Starr, another retreat participant. “I’ve learned so much, but still feel like it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Kahu Kealoha Sugiama greets workshop participant Marianne Starr, as he visits the retreat to speak with the participants and perform a closing blessing. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN)
Kahu Kealoha Sugiama speaks with the workshop participants in the meditation temple; guest Debra Heinz listens. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN)
What Kokolulu does is offer tools to participants so they can sort out what they need for their own lives. A typical retreat day starts at 7 a.m. with stretching, qi gong and meditation, three meals prepared with wholesome ingredients, two group sessions where self-help tools are taught and exercise and body work. Rest periods round out the day, offering time for self-reflection as well as a chance to visit sacred sites.
“Our philosophy embraces all modalities of medicine in the treatment of cancer,” Cooke said. “By combining Western, Eastern and complementary methods, a synergy is often achieved in healing that cannot be accomplished in embracing just one or two medicinal modalities.”
Starr said she learned ways to strengthen her immune system so she could reduce the risk of her cancer reoccurring.
“Before this [retreat] I had a lot of doubt,” Starr said. “Now I feel empowered to make these changes for my healing.”
“I second that!” said Heinz emphatically.
Heinz and Starr both agreed that attending the five-day retreat had changed their lives for the better, and that being at Kokolulu had helped them to narrow down their options in order to beat cancer.
If one Googles the word cancer, 172 million pages of information come up. What Karin and Lew do is narrow down all of that information so retreat participants can make the right choices for themselves.
“We let them come to their own decisions,” Cooke said. “If chemotherapy is needed, we tell them to welcome it, bless it. Not to go with anger.”
Whitney explained that “the bottom line is that we are all responsible for our own healing.”
“People will pick and choose what is going to work for them, and how to incorporate all information and tools for their empowerment,” he said.
Workshop participants, from left, Marianne Starr and Debra Heinz enjoy breakfast with Karin Cooke and Lew Whitney, who run the retreat workshops. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN)
The meditation temple offers a peaceful area for guests at the retreat to spend time in. Kahu Kealoha Sugiama taps a singing bowl above Marianne Starr. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN)
From left, Karin Cooke, Debra Heinz, Lew Whitney, Kealoha Sugiama and Marianne Starr pose together on their last day of the five-day retreat. PHOTOS BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN
The intimate setting of Kokolulu allows for one-on-one counseling and learning. The center’s therapies and bodywork include meditation, massage, reiki, guided imagery, acupuncture, yoga and relaxation strategies. An infrared sauna for detoxification is offered. The daily workshops and sessions help participants manage depression and anxiety, and to deal with their cancer and how it affects relationships. Combine all of this with the beauty and healing land of Hawaii, and attendees gain their power back as well as relax from the pressures of their everyday living.
“They make us feel like we are the only ones, they are totally focused,” said Heinz.
Cooke added, “We stay in touch as well, it doesn’t just end after a week of being here.”
Recently Cooke presented a paper at the Society for Integrative Oncology. Residential retreats were compared and Kokolulu is the only center that lasts five to seven days long. There are only about 12 other residential retreats like it across the U.S., and most offer either three-hour workshops or at the most, weekend retreats.
As a non-profit public charity organization, Kokolulu looks for donations as well as sponsorships so those diagnosed with cancer are able to retreat from daily living to empower themselves.
“I read about this retreat in the newspaper,” said Starr. “But my doctor should have sent me. It would really help him to have calmer patients if they would come here to learn.”