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The Stretch Heal Grow retreat was exactly what I needed during a time of so much uncertainty in my life.

I started articling at a law firm exactly one month after I had finished treatment in July 2016. I was so focused on moving forward after my ten months of treatment, that all I wanted to do was start working again. It was challenging but every week I was building up more stamina. The day after I finished articling, in May 2017, I was required to have major surgery to fix my reconstruction. I felt like I had taken a huge step back in my healing because I was unemployed and sick again.

Fast forward a few months and it was time for Stretch Heal Grow. My retreat started with a three-hour car ride to Muskoka from Toronto carpooling with three other women. The car ride flew by with continuous discussions about all our similar experiences. We already felt comfortable with each other after only a few hours.

The retreat was filled with everything I needed to heal physically and emotionally – healthy food, beautiful landscape, yoga, meditation and sharing with other women who just “get it”.

The mornings began with yoga led by Leo. She was so knowledgeable and knew exactly what stretches were best for us, taking into account the trauma we experienced and the ongoing side effects, especially what would help with lymphedema. The perfect way to start each day.

After yoga we had meditation led by Jil. Throughout the last couple of years, I have tried to meditate but I find it so hard. I wanted to experience the entire retreat though, so I went to her sessions with an open mind. I left feeling rejuvenated and more connected to the other women. Jil was a great facilitator who explained that meditation is not just about having a clear mind, but rather, acknowledging your thoughts and feelings. Once I understood that, it became so much easier for me to enjoy. I still use the techniques Jil taught us in my everyday life.

The retreat occurred at a time when I needed it the most – a year post active treatment and yet still dealing with the emotional after-effects. A cancer diagnosis, and the repercussions of that, don’t just end when treatment ends – I will forever be impacted. The women at the retreat understood this, creating a comforting and supportive community that will hopefully last a lifetime. I am so grateful to have been a part of something so meaningful. I left with a full heart.

Emily Piercell


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Last August I had to have an emergency root canal. It was in the morning on the day I was supposed to drive up to Muskoka for Stretch Heal Grow.

Jasmin: Are you sure you are going to be able to come up today?

Me: Yup. It’s just a root canal. How bad could it be?

Jasmin: It’s not good S. You can just come tomorrow morning. Leo and I can handle it.

Me: I am coming. See you later!

I got in my car at 3pm, in the pouring rain with my mouth still frozen and drove the three hours to Trillium Resort and Spa. The night before the retreat was always a treat. It was a time for the team to connect and it was a time to bear witness to the magic of Jasmin.

On the subject of magic, I should set the scene of this retreat for you: Imagine a picture-perfect spot in nature, on a picture-perfect lake (it’s called Devine Lake – I swear), with the cutest little cabins and cottages, a spa, yummy food, trails in the woods and a waterfall (not joking). There was no possible way a root canal was going to prevent me from waking up and drinking my coffee with Jasmin on the dock, before the magic happens.

Photo courtesy of Melanie Gordon

I arrived just in time for dinner and made my way through the muck and puddles to the lodge to meet Jasmin and Leo, the yoga teacher. Somewhere between my pasta and molten chocolate lava cake the biggest, brightest rainbow appeared right outside our window over Devine Lake. Right in our view. All three of us sat silently breathing it in. It was the most beautiful rainbow I had ever seen. No matter how many times I see a rainbow in my lifetime, I am always floored. Completely shocked by the sheer beauty of it and puzzled by it’s existence. This time was different…I had the feeling this rainbow was meant to be right there for our eyes only. To set the intention for Stretch Heal Grow and to send our leader a sign that this retreat was bigger than her. That the universe was going to care about it for the next three days, and always.

Jasmin: This is a good omen ladies.

Yes. An omen…a magical sign.

I had no idea that this would be Jasmin’s last retreat but looking back it all makes some sense – even though her death makes no sense at all.

It was the 5th SHG and we were expecting 23 women to attend this retreat. 23 lucky women and those who attended and are reading this know exactly what I mean by lucky- perhaps a life changing experience…. There is NOTHING lucky about breast cancer, but there is something so special about SHG:

  • An opportunity to connect with other women going through what you are going through. Check.
  • An opportunity to get away from your life for a few days and focus on yourself. Check.
  • An opportunity to explore the benefits of yoga and mindfulness. Check.
  • An opportunity to work through some of the complicated feelings you are having about your life and cancer. Check.
  • An opportunity to meet a real-life unicorn and experience some magic. CHECK.

Jasmin was like a unicorn…

A heraldic representation of this animal, in the form of a horse with a lion’s tail and with a long, straight, and spirally twisted horn. A messenger of sorts, a proclaimer and person that announces. According to unicorn mythology, unicorns straddle the visible and invisible world. They have the power to transform themselves. Symbolically they represent being open to infinite possibilities that surround us (even when we can’t see them) and the wisdom to take advantage of them.

Jasmin transformed herself in the face of cancer. Her spiritual practice of yoga and meditation allowed her to stay open, loving and to find some peace in the darkness. She believed that you can face pain and tragedy AND grow to be the best version of yourself. Don’t get me wrong – I know for a fact that she put a ton of “work” into this practice, but the result was magic.

Photo courtesy of Melanie Gordon

One was captivated in her presence. I witnessed this over and over again working with her on Stretch Heal Grow and getting to know her as a friend. People gravitated towards her… it was like they wanted to bask in her spirit and her magic. They seemed to desperately want something she had… to unlock the secret to finding yourself again in the midst of pain and sorrow. She compassionately gave people the power to believe anything is possible.

At some point during the retreat last summer I looked in Jasmin’s eyes and knew she was suffering. She was more tired than usual and she was running off of pure adrenalin. I knew in my heart it might be the last time I would witness the magic with my own eyes.

But I also knew in that moment that ALL of us who were touched by her, knew her and loved her – we carry her secret.

What is required when we are faced with adversity is a leap of faith or a sense of something bigger than ourselves and opening up our heart to infinite possibilities. Sometimes, we can’t see what possibilities surround us, or that they exist – but they are there. There is a power we need to channel in order to believe in them and see them or feel them.

This power allows us to hold space for others even when we are suffering ourselves and it helps us to light up the world. Just like Jasmin. It’s precisely what she wanted.



SHG will feel bittersweet for sure this year, but it also marks the beginning of Jasmin’s beautiful legacy for young women coping with cancer. They will be big shoes to fill, but we have many dedicated feet and more women facing breast cancer who need a little magic in their lives.

Want to help send a young woman with breast cancer on the next Stretch Heal Grow? Donate HERE.

Photo courtesy of Melanie Gordon

Beautiful Jasmin –

This tribute to you comes later then we wanted, but we know your laid-back spirit would forgive us. As a group of women who have plenty to say, we lost our words when it came to losing you.

You were a member of the Rethink family for a long time. First as a peer support volunteer and then as a full-fledged leader in in the metastatic breast cancer movement. Your contributions to the cause evolved as you did. Your guidance and leadership was not the aggressive system-change kind – although you definitely appreciated the need for fiery advocacy for those with MBC. It was more of the “do all the good you can, by all the means that you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can” kind.

When it came to facing life and the most troubling and dark circumstances, you found the light and radiated it. You didn’t just “talk the talk” with mantras and inspirational quotes that you picked up along the way – you embodied them through your humanity and your kindness. 

And when we first heard of your passing, we took a moment, read this passage by Pema Chodron (a favourite of yours), and enjoyed a delicious strawberry:

“There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse.
Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.
Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.”

Delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.

Thank you for that reminder, Jasmin. Although we can no longer bask in your glow, we are forever inspired by you to continue creating a community for women coping with cancer that will nurture their soul and heal their spirit when they feel broken.

Thank you for creating Stretch Heal Grow and for trusting us to carry it forward. Thank you for showing us how to hold space for others even when we are suffering ourselves. Thank you for continuing to be a guiding light in the lives of the many, many people whose lives you touched. Thank you for everything.

With love + gratitude,

MJ, Shawna, Alison, Maura, Jen, Stacey, Ali, Alex, Paulina and Bailey

More memories from the community who loved you:

This year’s annual Stretch Heal Grow yoga retreat brought 23 young women from our community together in the Muskokan woods. The wonderful thing about connecting in a retreat setting is that there really is time to get to know and trust each other in a way that allows you to open up and share your experience. There was laughter and tears and lots and lots of learning.

No one really knew what to expect upon arriving: some women had done yoga before, some not at all. Some were comfortable giving and receiving support, some were nervous about the prospect of speaking about their experience. And at the end of the retreat, everyone reflected on the ways that they were grateful and pleasantly surprised by the whole experience.

When each woman checked in to their cozy cabin they found a special care package containing items to pamper and to soothe – many of them donated by women who had attended the retreat in years before and wanted to give back. Participants enjoyed daily therapeutic yoga and meditation sessions. Mealtimes provided healthy and delicious nourishment, and spa treatments were just that: a treat.  There was also ample time to connect: group circles, one-on-one discussions, and free time to explore the beautiful surroundings. Many had a chance to try something new: swimming across gorgeous Devine Lake, getting  up on a Stand Up Paddle board, howling at the full moon, dancing in the rain – or maybe just having a conversation they may not have had.

All of this made possible by the gentle and inspirational retreat founder, Jasmin. Her vision has brought together so many women and continues to be one of Rethink’s most impactful partnerships.

We can’t wait until next year….

*Photographs by MelanieGordon.com

What has your experience been like in finding hope, support and community after your metastatic diagnosis?

Things that continually help me to find hope are:

  • my family
  • meditation and mindfulness practice, which help me to stay present and not get carried away with worries or anxiety
  • connecting with others who are on a similar path
  • getting tools to help me deal with the stress – exercise, naturopathic treatments, going to a counselor to talk
  • being in nature
  • self care and respecting where I am at day to day

What are some of the barriers to finding your path?

My needs change from week to week and month to month. I have always been a planner and still plan, but part of me naturally wonders how many of my plans or goals will need to change and I need to be open to that fact – open to living with uncertainty.

Some basic barriers are that I can get really tired and need to rest, my brain gets foggy, or I get anxious. I need to take really good care of myself and sometimes that means not doing all the things I would like to be doing. I need to be selective and sometimes that is hard.

Tell us about the people who are in your community.

My community is a real mixture of people. My friends outside the cancer world, as well as my family, are the biggest part of my community – they were there before diagnosis and they continue to be now. My children and my husband are my rocks  and my sunshine.

I have also become friends with many young women who have completed treatment for early stage cancer as well as women who have metastatic cancer.

I find that I feel different every day, or rather there are many sides to how I feel about living with metastatic breast cancer. Having a varied community helps to meet my needs different ways. I am trying to find a balance between being in the cancer world but also in my regular non-cancer world.

My oncology team is also part of my community, in a different way. They are the people I deal with on a regular basis for all my medical concerns. Since I hope to be around for a long, long time I need a medical community of doctors that I feel comfortable with and believe in. I am lucky to have a fantastic team and their knowledge and helpful attitude helps me through as well.

What does Stretch Heal Grow (your wellness retreat for young women with breast cancer) mean to you?

Stretch Heal Grow came from the idea that I wanted to help other women who were going through the same thing I had gone through. I had early stage breast cancer and was finishing treatment, wondering what life would be like after treatment. I was feeling like I really needed to connect with others but was never someone who felt comfortable in a traditional group therapy setting.

I wanted to use the tools that helped me through diagnosis and treatment as a way to bring other women together with a focus on wellness and self care. I had a feeling there would be other women out there interested in the same experience. So I created what I thought an ideal weekend retreat would be with the wellness tools that I feel really strongly about.

When I was diagnosed with mets, it really threw me, and for a while I wasn’t sure how to move forward with the retreat.

After lots of thinking, meditating and self-reflection I realized that I was still really passionate about it–almost even more so. Living with metastatic disease adds another entire level to this experience; it is very different than living with early stage. There is more pain, discomfort, fatigue and anxiety. All those reasons made me seek out self care even more. It became more than a nice thing to do for myself; it became essential to being able to live with a chronic condition. For me, meditation has been an incredible way to connect with my emotions, my energy, my thoughts and also to find calm in the storm.

With Stretch Heal Grow, I am trying to create an experience for women where they can come and get in touch with themselves, learn some ways to help themselves through the physical and mental up and downs of cancer, as well as connect with other women who understand it all. It ties together the importance of physical and mental self care through spending time in nature, yoga, meditation/mindfulness and being in community where you are understood.

What does support look like when it works?

It is there when you need it, without judgment or conditions. It understands that sometimes you feel great and ready to take on the world and sometimes you don’t and that that is okay. Support helps you connect with yourself, to find strength for the bad stuff and happiness with the good stuff. Support helps you feel understood.

What else do you want people to know?

Living with metastatic breast cancer is not easy, but it is possible. My feeling about it changes depending on how I am feeling that day but I have learned over the past year and half to be patient with myself and patient with my body. When I was first diagnosed there was a lot of anger and fear. I still have times where I feel that, of course, but I have taken a much softer, more loving approach with myself. Life is too short to not be caring and compassionate to yourself and to those around you who are on this path with you.

Pain, suffering and sadness are all a part of living with mets, but they are not the only part of living with mets. For me there is also so much love, enjoyment of life, pleasure, fun, peacefulness and potential to still do and experience so much in the time that I have. I think this is a universal thing – not just a metastatic cancer thing. But of course when you have cancer, it is all heightened and so you are face-to-face with it a lot more.

Surround yourself with people and experiences that bring you happiness, even just from small things. Do things that make you happy. Try new things, enjoy the feeling of doing your longtime favourite things, even if you can’t do them in the exact same way you used to. Be good to yourself.

My wife, Mélanie Chalmers, passed away on Saturday, August 8, 2015 – just after 5h30.  She died in our home, with her parents and me at her bedside.  She was as comfortable as possible, and the last stages of her suffering were very brief.  There is some solace in that for all of us who cared about Mélanie.

Since losing Mélanie, my focus has been on the seemingly endless list of tasks (banking, licenses, online accounts, etc.) and the important work of connecting with all of those who are processing this loss.  I am grateful for how completely this is consuming my days, as I am not sure how to deal with silence, choice, or free time.  I can’t begin to conceive of how to return to work, or any other aspect of ‘normal’ life.  Our friends and family have frequently heard me say I refused to think of ‘after’… I do not regret my previous choice of focus, and I accept my current struggles as partial payment for the pleasure Mélanie and I were able to extract from the time we had together.  We knew that our singular focus on squeezing the most out of the time we got together was going to leave ‘Future Rob’ with some struggles, but that’s a bill I am satisfied to pay.

I cannot begin to make sense out of such a painful and senseless loss, so I will instead share with you a couple of thoughts about Mélanie that have given me some solace when I have been inconsolable.  They have helped me to focus on the beauty in her life rather than the tragedy of her death.  I hope they will do the same for you.

FIRST – while we are all struck by the unfairness and tragedy of Mélanie’s passing – too soon, and too fast – what matters most is not how she died, but how she livedMélanie believed that your life, if you were lucky, was the accumulated result of the choices you make and the actions you take.  She always found it odd when people responded to one of her adventures by saying “I wish I could do that” – because she believed that, if you really wanted to, you could… as long as you accepted what it meant you could not do.  She did not accept that life just happened, and she was not afraid to pay the cost (emotional, financial, or otherwise) to change paths if she was not happy with the results she was getting.  There are many examples of this in her professional and personal life – far more than I can share in the time and space we are sharing now.

On a personal level, I took it as a great compliment that Mélanie stuck with me for over thirteen years – as I am sure that, if she were not happy, someone else would be sharing their perspective with you today.

SECOND – Mélanie never settled, and she never stopped.  Even as her disease progressed and her doctors warned us of the associated risks, Mélanie insisted that we squeeze the most we could out of the time we had.  When her Medical Oncologist told us we were getting a ‘chemo vacation’ for the month of July, Mélanie immediately responded that we would be spending that time in Australia.  When our doctor said he was worried, and asked us what we would do if her disease progressed further and things got worse while we were on the other side of the globe, Mélanie responded that we would do the same thing we would do if we were in Toronto – but the difference is that we wouldn’t be sitting there waiting for it to happen.

As it stands, we had an amazing twenty days together in Australia, with some experiences that Mel ranked among her best ever (and that is saying something for someone who visited 47 countries in the past ten years!).  Furthermore – Mélanie had not only planned our next trip (two weeks after Oz, we were supposed to head to England for a ‘Downton Abbey’ inspired tour), she had already begun thinking about the next one – trying to see if she could wedge in another trip before TIFF, so she could get her lifetime country count up to 50.

SA cliffsTHIRD – Mélanie both inspired me to be a better person, and insisted that I strive to do so.  Mel constantly pushed me to not accept ‘good enough’ results.  I think she learned this from her parents (who used to greet a 98% test score by asking her what happened to the other 2%).

While some of this ‘push’ was overt, most of it was by inspiration.  Simply by loving me, Mélanie made me want to be better – to be deserving of the love of someone so committed to getting the most out of life.  She deserved a partner who could help her do that… and I pushed every day to be that partner (remember – I DID know she was willing to make changes!).

Mélanie was pushing me right to the end of our time together, and insisted that I go on.  On one of her last healthy days, we were snorkeling with whale sharks off the West Coast of Australia (rereading and reflecting on that sentence makes me shake my head – I lived it with her, and I still can’t believe it).  Mélanie got uncomfortable in the open water, and called for the safety boat… but she insisted that I stay, saying (with a snorkel hanging from her mouth), “Just because I can’t go on doesn’t mean you should miss this.  If you stop, it will make me feel like I failed.”  So I helped her into the safety boat, and then swam on to see the 20-foot long shark.  Then I came back to the boat and held her while she warmed up.  I didn’t stop.  I won’t stop.  That is what she taught me.

Melanie3

FINALLY – Mélanie didn’t just make me better; she had a positive influence on many people, extending far beyond close friends and family. The day after Mélanie passed, I received a note from a high school acquaintance of mine who had not even met Mélanie, but still felt my wife had made her life better:

“I have followed you and Melanie as a wall flower through your [FaceBook] posts.  I have been inspired by you both to live and to love and to be present, because that is all one ever really has.

I wanted to reach out to you to let you know that I think your love for one another made the world a little bit better of a place; some kind of butterfly effect – love oozed out of your lives and into the lives of others, that you didn’t even know – like mine.  I wanted to thank you for that.  Your challenges that you shared helped me be present in my life and not to live in fear of the future or in fear of our circumstances.  That kind of thing can’t be measured and can never be undone, so in a way, you two started something that will never end.”

For the past few weeks, I have been resisting saying things like “Mel would have liked that”… but I truly think that she would have been touched to reflect on how she had inspired so many people to be present, and to get the most out of the time they get. That’s what ‘F Cancer’ – what beating cancer – means.  It’s not about not dying; it’s about living while you can.  I don’t have to guess at this; I know it from Mel’s own words.

In 2014, we embarked upon six months of traveling that we called our ‘F Cancer Trip.’  As we began, Mélanie started our travel blog by sharing her entire treatment journey to that point (diagnosis, surgery, chemo, radiation), baring all of her emotions and finishing with this:

“…now, as treatments are finally over, we’ve decided that we deserve to live it up.  We had always said that we would take time off to go travelling once we both turned 40.  Having gone through what we have this year, we didn’t think that waiting made any sense.  The reality is that, based on the tumour pathology, my age and other factors, I have a 15-20% chance of lifetime recurrence.  I don’t spend my days thinking of this, but it is always somewhere in the back of my mind.  My biggest fear is not death – it is not having a chance to live life to the fullest.

So a few days following my last radiation treatment, we sold our house.  At the beginning of December, we moved all our belongings into a storage unit and only kept with us the bare minimum to get us through 5 month of travels.  When we have told some folks of our plans, some have reacted by saying that we are ‘lucky’.  Luck has nothing to do with it, unless you consider winning the cancer-lottery lucky.  The decision to uproot your life, sell your house and become nomadic for a period of time is all about prioritizing.  For Rob and myself, seeing the world is a priority.  Taking time to reconnect and “shake the etch-a-sketch” is a major priority.”

We knew that cancer would take Mèlanie at the end, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t beat it.  I am proud I got to travel with her through it all.  Thank you, Mélanie, for choosing me to be your partner in this adventure.  Merci et je t’aime – toujours.

-Rob Chalmers

Melanie2

Being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer seems, to me, to be a series of moments for which I’m not ready. I’m not ready to be chronic. I’m not ready for the next scan. I’m not ready for treatment. I’m not ready to lose another incredible woman. I’m not ready to be lost.

Certainly, I wasn’t ready last weekend when my husband and I arrived in Muskoka for a gathering of women who have stage four breast cancer. To be honest, I had tried to get out of it just weeks before, shooting off an email to Jasmin, founder of Stretch Heal Grow, saying I just couldn’t deal. I didn’t know if I could handle being in a group of women like me. Could I cope with that reminder of mortality in myself, as well as in others?

Thank goodness for Shawna of Rethink Breast Cancer (working in partnership with Stretch Heal Grow). She reached out via email and insisted this retreat would be good for me, and it wouldn’t fixate on the hard stuff. She encouraged me to face my ‘I’m not ready.’

“Alright, I’ll try,” I wrote back.

The retreat weekend eventually arrived. After hours of driving from Ottawa, we pull up to the entrance of the Trillium Resort & Spa in Muskoka. Fluffy white snow covers everything and the sky is this striking blue. It’s a world away from the dimness of our apartment back in Ottawa, where we spend most days working over our computers and receiving emails about work, letters from the hospital, phone calls with appointments, plus the always growing pile of dishes in the kitchen sink.

We drive into this beautiful, quiet place and I just want to breathe it all in. If winter was like this everywhere, we’d never need spring to arrive.

Credit: Catherine Hudon/5Mphotographie
Credit: Catherine Hudon/5Mphotographie

We park by the main chalet, and my husband jumps out of the car. He is waiting for me to join him. For the first time at a cancer support event, I have him with me. This is huge. We are going to experience the weekend of yoga, meditation, and support together. In some ways, I’m doing this as much for him, and for us, as I am for myself.

And still, despite having him there, I know that getting out of that car means admitting that I belong to this group. I am really, truly living with stage four breast cancer.

But Zsolt is waiting. So, I get out of the car. There’s no going back.

In that moment, as we went to check in, the only thing I wanted to take away from the weekend was resilience – resilience in simply being there. But instead, I found more. Or maybe it’s better to say that I found something deeper.

Credit: Catherine Hudon/5Mphotographie
Credit: Catherine Hudon/5Mphotographie

The weekend started and I was running on empty. By the end, I’d been filled up with little moments. So many little moments. Here are just a few, but I’m certain between all of the participants, we could fill up a book.

• The welcoming hug from Shawna as I checked in at reception.
• Holding my husband’s hand during the opening circle.
• Mats unrolled for yoga at sunset, led by Leo.
• The smell of lavender and eucalyptus.
• New neighbours at each meal, with new stories and insights.
• Admitting that I was struggling with being there, and others saying they understood.
• Yarn being tossed through the air, person to person, forming a Mandala.
• Snowshoeing, sweat dripping, and praying I don’t see a bear!
• Sleeping through the night.
• Giggles, laughter and tears.
• The bracelet on my husband’s wrist that he didn’t take off for days.

Stretch Heal Grow reminded me to forgive myself for never really being ready. I guess perhaps, we won’t ever shake off the ‘I’m not ready’ of life. Not totally, at least. But despite that, I know I can do this: relax my shoulders, soften my face, and take a long, deep breath.

Breathe, move, and breathe again.

This is a feeling I’ll carry with me.

Zsolt and Catherine

-Catherine Brunelle

P.S. Thank you to Stretch Heal Grow, Rethink, and all the sponsors who helped make the weekend retreat possible. Thank you, thank you and thank you again. 😉

Want to hear more from Catherine? Check out her awesome blog at catherinebrunelle.com!