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The Garden That Heals

by Jenny Peterson

Inspiration image

“Don’t let cancer define you, Jenny. You are more than your diagnosis.”

This was the advice from my doctor when she gave me the news that I had breast cancer, the disease that had killed my mother. It was Friday, May 11, 2012 – I don’t need to look up the date because it’s seared into my memory, like it is for most people with a cancer diagno­sis. I thought, “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t have breast cancer.”

Then I met my oncologist, who said, “Not everything in your world can be about breast cancer.” So clearly I had a theme going here, and it made me think beyond my feelings of fear and panic. Who am I, aside from being a person with breast cancer? Who was I before this diagnosis, and had she changed?

The answer is that I am many things. I am Jenny. I am a gardener. I am a writer. I am a mother. I am a fiancée, a sister, a friend. I am a designer. I am a child of God. I am optimistic, sarcastically funny, and I am a good baker. There’s no reason I can’t still be all of those things even after my diagnosis, right?

Yet I struggled with my feelings of competency, I questioned my physical and mental abilities, and I yearned for the days when the world around me felt secure and recognizable. If you’ve had a cancer diagnosis, you’ve probably felt the same. Your world has changed forever, and you don’t know how you’ll navigate all of the changes. Your body doesn’t move and feel the same, and it certainly doesn’t look the same if you’ve had any amount of surgery. You may question your attractiveness and your vitality, your inner and outer strength.

“Don’t let cancer define you, Jenny.”
So how did I not let cancer define me? Not knowing anything better, I simply kept doing what I knew to do. And one of those things was gardening. Plants, and the act of growing and caring for them, have been a central part of my personal and professional life for a long time. I’m a freelance garden writer and author as well as a garden designer, and I’ve gardened on a 150-square-foot garden as well as an entire acre. I love houseplants, flowers, succulents, and herbs. So I gardened.

For a long time, my gardening didn’t resemble the type of gardening I used to do. I was weak and struggled with some range of motion issues in my left arm where I’d had surgery. I felt a little depressed and lacked energy, and I was sensitive to heat. I was told to not lift more than 10 pounds and to not perform repetitive, jarring motions. That kind of left out shoveling, wheelbarrowing, and plant hauling. What to do, what to do.

I was determined to find some place where I could thrive and experience joy again.

Inspiration image

Jenny Peterson

I’m not going to lie – I had many days when I did not feel like gardening. But I decided to change my approach and focus on small, doable tasks. I could water my front porch plants and tend to my houseplants without any problem, so that’s what I did most days. And little by little, my relationship with plants and my garden became the thing that turned me around – body, mind and spirit. No, it wasn’t easy. Nothing about cancer and cancer treatment is easy. But it was my reality, and I was determined to find some place where I could thrive and experience joy again.

Getting Grounded
After I finished treatment, I thought, “Wow, thank God I’m done with that. Let’s get life back to normal now.” Unwittingly, I was viewing my cancer treatment as a mere inconvenience, a short disruption in my life. It actually disrupted my Universe, and changed it forever. My expectation to begin living my life as though nothing had happened was rudely and swiftly challenged.

The first year after treatment consisted largely of what I had read it might – feeling tired, getting my hair back, dealing with foggy “chemo brain,” rebuilding my strength. It was the second year, though, that threw me for a cosmic loop. My hormones finally crashed after being thrust into chemo-induced medical menopause, my brain seemed even foggier, my emotions were on a roller coaster ride from Hell, and I saw no end in sight. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for! The doctor who called me with my diagnosis said that I would feel better in a year. One year, not two and beyond.

It was during this time that I began working – with the blessing of my oncologist – with a wonderful and gifted holistic practitioner, Dr. Robin Mayfield. Robin and I had been friends for several years, with both of us writing garden blogs and belonging to an Austin area garden blogging group. In fact, it’s ironic that I’m mentioning Robin here, because her blog is about gardening in the Texas heat and harsh environment, and it’s called “Getting Grounded: It’s not for sissies.

Cancer treatment and its recovery are, indeed, not for sissies. It kicked the snot out of me, and it continued to surprise me that it took so long to recover. But Robin told me something that really resonated with me: every day, before you do anything else, get your cup of coffee or tea, and go out into the garden. Don’t do anything. Just check on your roses, appreciate the flowers you just planted, observe how many tomatoes are on the vine, greet your chickens. Get grounded. Feel the ground beneath your feet. It reminds you of who you are and where you came from.

For months, this was my ritual, and I treated it like my homework. Get grounded. This simple yet powerful ritual has a way of whispering in your ear, “Hey, just breathe. One day at a time. It’s going to be okay.”

But what, exactly, is getting “grounded” and how does it work? To answer that, think first about what it means to be “ungrounded.” That’s where you’re in a headspace of feeling angry, anxious, bitter, upset, distracted, unhappy. All those feelings are normal, but they also keep you from being in the here and now. They pull your mind away in a million different directions, and after a while you forget what it means to be present.

Ground Yourself
Go outside. Get barefoot if possible.
Walk on the soil or grass, not pavement.
Feel the ground under your feet.
Breathe in deeply.
Be aware of your surroundings.
Engage your senses (smell, touch, sight, hearing).

So get grounded. Get back to the basics. Take a few minutes for yourself, reminding yourself of what is real right now. Don’t treat cancer and your treatment as merely an inconvenience, because you will be squandering away an opportunity to see a deeper meaning. Will you always feel like doing this? Of course not. But when you least feel like doing something is perhaps when it just may be the most beneficial to you.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Jenny Peterson is a breast cancer survivor, landscape designer, writer, and speaker. She has written for several lifestyle, home, and garden websites and publications. Learn more about Jenny at JPetersonGardenDesign.com.

Excerpted from The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, St. Lynn’s Press, 2016.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2016.