Life after Cancer – Gardening

Gardening can help you reconnect with your life.

Wood Handled Garden Trowel Pushed into Soil

On the last day of cancer treatment, I think every patient should receive a medal and a garden trowel. The medal is to acknowledge the horrific journey you have just completed and the trowel is to encourage you to get outside and do some gardening.

Cancer treatment can save your life but it is a brutal experience. I know this because I have been through it. I am a breast cancer survivor. At the end of my treatment, I was grateful to be alive! I was also feeling beat up, worn out, and emotionally traumatized. I needed to recover from cancer treatment.

Gardening has been a surprising and vital part of my healing process. I am sharing my story here in hopes that it may help you if you are coping with cancer or another serious illness or you love someone who is.

My Cancer Treatment is Over, Now What?

For those of us fortunate enough to survive cancer treatment, there is life after cancer.

After I completed treatment, I felt as if I had crossed some kind of ephemeral bridge that disappeared into the mist as soon as I stepped off it at the other end. There was no going back to the old me. The only choice was to move forward into uncharted territory.

As far as I know, there is no roadmap, with the destination “you are recovered” marked on it with directions on how to get there. At least I did not receive one. How do you begin recovering from a devastating life-altering experience?

You start by doing something, anything.

I did things like gradually increasing my daily walking and resuming my healthy eating habits. Volunteering gave me a sense of empowerment that helped me get back to my work, which is trying to convince you, me, and everyone else to live more lightly on Earth.

Taking up gardening again both soothed my soul and healed my body.

You may not realize that gardening is good exercise. Almost any kind of gardening requires physical activity like moving around, carrying stuff, and using tools. These activities can help you regain your strength, energy, and stamina.

Gardening has intangible benefits, too. It can refresh your spirit and reconnect you with your life. The act of growing something can remind you that you are part of nature, not separate from it.

Besides reconnecting me with my life, gardening gave me a feeling of doing something worthwhile. By healing myself, I was healing a tiny spot on Earth.

Gardening Helped Me Heal after Cancer Treatment

At its most basic, gardening is about helping something grow with your own hands.

Hanging Basket with Plants and Flowers
Hanging basket with plants and flowers – Photo iStock/Antony Kemp

Close your eyes and picture yourself gardening. What comes to mind? Do you see yourself pruning roses, digging a hole for an oak tree sapling, harvesting bell peppers, taking out your lawn, or _____?

I saw myself spreading mulch on our drought-stricken patch of land in the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast.

Moving a Mountain of Mulch

Mulch nourishes the soil and helps it retain moisture, which is especially important if you live in a dry climate with low rainfall as we do.

In our town, tree and landscape maintenance services will deliver mulch consisting of wood chips, leaves, and pine needles free. You then provide the labor to move and spread it out.

In previous years, I had spread literally tons of mulch around our yard.

Gardening in our yard involves a lot of walking up and down sloping ground so a wheelbarrow is not practical. I had purchased a 17-gallon plastic tub with handles (the kind you put ice and beverages in at a party). After shoveling mulch into the tub, I would carry it to a location in the yard and dump it. After I covered some section of land, I spread the mulch out with a rake.

The work was hard and strenuous, but it paid off. More tree seedlings survived each year, native plants established themselves, and the soil was dark and rich where the mulch had biodegraded over the years.

Just before my cancer diagnosis, I had received a truck full of mulch that had been strategically placed in piles around our yard.

I had not made much progress when chemotherapy quickly sapped my strength and energy. There was no way I could move the mulch with a shovel and a tub. I could have asked my spouse or perhaps I could have hired someone to do it but I wanted to do it myself—so the mulch sat, and sat, and sat.

As the end of my treatment came into view, I could not imagine how I would ever have the strength to push a shovel into a pile of mulch with alone carry a tub of it more than a few feet. This was a depressing thought. I felt defeated.

Then one day, I realized that there was another way to move the mountain of mulch. I could do it a little bit at a time with a garden trowel and two small pails I already owned. This seemed like a questionable idea, even to me, but I decided to try it.

Each day that I could walk uphill in our yard, I used my trowel to fill the two pails with mulch, then I walked to an area that was crying out for protection and dumped the pails. On days that I felt especially energetic, I did it twice.

As you can imagine it took me many months to move all that mulch but I did do it and I enjoyed doing it.

Being outside was refreshing. I could feel the breeze and hear the birds twittering in the trees. I was doing something worthwhile by helping this tiny piece of land heal. The simple act of moving the mulch from point A to B was empowering for me. It showed me that I could and would recover.

A mulch mountain project may not appeal to you so let us look at some other gardening activities.

Gardening Can Help You Recover from Cancer Treatment, Too

Everyone’s situation is different. You could be a novice who has never grown anything in your life or a seasoned gardener looking for a way to re-enter gardening.

I hope one of the suggestions below will appeal to you or help you come up with your own gardening idea.

Container Gardening

Not everyone has a yard or wants one. Many homes, condos, and apartments have a patio, terrace, or a balcony. These are good places for experimenting with growing plants, flowers, or food in pots and other containers.

Fresh Parsley, Basil, and Oregano Growing in Pots
Fresh parsley, basil, and oregano growing in pots – Photo Credit iStock/Mkucova

Are you a fan of cooking with fresh herbs? Then try growing a few from seeds or already potted plants. Do you wish you had a rose garden? Then start one on your patio with a few rose bushes that are suitable for containers (ask at your local nursery). Would like some color on our balcony? Try your hand at creating your own planter with small-scale flowers and plants.

You can do a lot of gardening with a garden trowel, a pair of clippers, a bucket, a watering can, and a pair of gloves.

Native Plant Gardening

Native plants and trees are adapted to living in the climate of the regions they originated in and they do not require a lot of extra inputs like pesticides, fertilizers, and extra water.

Are you interested in giving native plants a whirl but not ready to make a big commitment? Ask your local nursery for suggestions and then select a plant or two to try. Are you tired of caring for your turf grass lawn or paying someone else to do it? Consider taking the plunge and removing your grass then growing native plants or seasonal foods. Are you interested in attracting birds, bees, or butterflies to your yard? Ask for native plant ideas at your local nursery, botanical garden, or native plant society and then add some native plants to your garden.

In addition to the equipment listed under container gardening, you will probably need a shovel, a tub for carrying soil, weeds, and plant clippings, a weeding tool, and possibly a rake.

Public Gardening

If you do not have a place to garden at home or even if you do, you might enjoy volunteering at a public garden. This also gives you an opportunity to work and learn alongside other people in your community.

People Planting Vegetables in a Community Garden
People planting vegetables in a community garden – Photo Credit iStock/Rawpixel

Are you interested in growing some of your own food but do not have a place to do it? Look for a community garden in your area where you are either responsible for your own plot or everyone works together collectively. Do you enjoy visiting a botanical garden where you live? Become a volunteer gardener and help with weeding, raking leaves, pruning, watering, and transplanting seedlings. Would you enjoy helping kids learn how to grow their own food? Find an elementary school in your area with a food garden and volunteer.

These are just a few of the ways you can get involved in gardening.

I hope you envision gardening as part of your life after cancer. Gardening is a delightful way to heal yourself and reconnect with your life while contributing to the greater good.

Featured Image at Top: Wood handled garden trowel pushed into soil – Photo Credit iStock/malerapaso

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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