Janie Brown, MSN ’92

Cancer is a disease that affects every aspect of life, but it doesn’t have to define who we are. We can make our lives and our deaths matter by the compassionate ways we care for ourselves and one another.

— Janie Brown, Co-founder and Executive Director, Callanish Society

I emigrated from Scotland in 1984 to work as a nurse at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver. There I learned that cancer is an undiscriminating disease, affecting a person of any age, gender, ethnicity and lifestyle. The cancer care system is necessarily oriented toward a person’s physical body, treating the disease and managing the challenging effects of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, yet it wasn’t long before I knew that something was missing for me. I longed to be able to quell fears and comfort sorrows, to help people thrive in a radically changed life or to help them face the end of life with a more peaceful mind and heart.

In 1990, I went back to university for a master’s degree in nursing in the hopes that more education would help me find new ways to foster healing. My studies did help, but I found the way forward in 1993 while watching the Bill Moyers TV series “Healing and the Mind,” which described the Commonweal cancer retreat program in Bolinas, California, led by Rachel Naomi Remen and Michael Lerner. I sensed my life was about to change, and the very next morning I phoned Commonweal and registered for an upcoming workshop to learn about developing a cancer retreat program in Canada.

Upon returning, I gathered friends and colleagues who soon became the core group of Callanish. The first Callanish retreat was held in 1995 by a volunteer team of multidisciplinary oncology professionals. We found our way together, retreat after retreat. In 1997, charitable status was granted, and weeklong retreats have been held four times a year ever since. In 2004, a home space in Vancouver was created to inspire the ongoing work of past retreat participants and their loved ones. The Callanish community has continued to evolve organically, responding to the needs of its members and guided by intuitive leadership.

Our community has grown, and we are still learning today from this work we feel privileged to do. Callanish is only one of two programs of its kind in Canada.

“I sincerely hope that through the wisdom of retreat participants—our greatest teachers—our team can offer those who cross our threshold a roadmap to a new place in life with greater peace and happiness.”

Adapted from the Callanish Society website https://www.callanish.org/the-story/


Reflections on Janie’s Amazing Career By Tracy Truant, Jan 21, 2019

I’ve known Janie Brown since 1988 when I started as a new nurse and worked together with her as clinical nurses on the 5th floor of the BC Cancer Agency (BCCA). She was a wonderful oncology nursing expert that provided me, the new oncology nurse, much perspective on how we need to change the cancer care environment and how we care for patients and families. It was during those night shifts on the 5th floor that I first had the opportunity to really listen to Janie’s philosophy of care and her vision for how it could be done differently.

Like all cancer care nurses, we were always concerned with the physical body and cancer-related disease treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But Janie longed for a day in which all oncology nurses could address fears, provide comfort and be mindful of the kind of end of life care that would improve patients’ wellness, support their heart and soul, and provide them with peace of mind. On a larger scale, Janie wanted to do something to establish strong systems of psychosocial oncology care by oncology nurses. Since these early days, and throughout my career, I have continued to learn the deeper essence of what matters in cancer care from Janie.

While Janie was a model of addressing the psychosocial and supportive care needs of her own patients, she also saw that the strong pull toward prioritizing physical care made it difficult for many nurses to fully optimize these aspects of their practice. So in1990, she developed a program of study in her MSN program to build the knowledge and skills to provide psychosocial and wellness healing and care for patients and families. Her vision was to move beyond skill with caring for individual patients, and to also consider how this “different” form of care might be made accessible to groups, families and health care professionals. Throughout this period, she continued to mentor and support her nursing colleagues in this direction through her work as a Clinical Nurse Specialist at BCCA.

By 1995, Janie had brought together an interprofessional group of colleagues to deliver the Callanish retreats on a regular basis. And by structuring it with charitable status under her leadership, she has continued to do this important work outside the formal care delivery system. The work Janie and her colleagues do includes education sessions, book and newsletter writing, participating with researchers, sitting on groups such as Supportive Care at BC Cancer, key national and provincial conference presentation such as Canadian Association with Nursing Oncology, in addition to the ongoing retreats.  I am in awe of Janie’s role modeling of how to use humility in supporting patients, families and health professionals through their cancer journey, and especially into the end of life. Whether they are providing direct patient care or developing large provincial programs to address the needs of populations, BC nurses – and nurses around the world – continue to learn from Janie’s message of what lies beyond our physical needs in the realm of psychosocial supportive care.


The Callanish Society website is at: https://www.callanish.org/

Janie regularly publishes her insights in a blog site “Life in Death,” that describes “the impact one person can have on another, in moments when death lingers at life’s edges.”  https://www.lifeindeath.org/

If you are interested in being notified when Janie publishes a new blog post, you can subscribe here: https://www.lifeindeath.org/subscribe/

Her insights are also being presented in a forthcoming book. Updates about that will also be available on her website.

Janie’s 1982 master’s thesis on “The Experience of Teenagers Living With a Parent with Advanced Cancer” supervised by Dr. Betty Davies, is available from https://open.library.ubc.ca/media/stream/pdf/831/1.0098866/1