Gardens life-affirming for cancer patients

By Victoria Register-Freeman
Resident Community News

When I became the accidental B&B owner, one of my earliest guests traveled with her spouse from Pensacola for monthly breast cancer chemo in Jacksonville.
I could always tell when V. had arrived because the B&B would vibrate with music from the black piano. She was an accomplished musician who could play Bach to Beatles, and she did play because the music soothed her.

Cancer survivor  Mary Ellen Freda and grandson Julian in the herb garden

Cancer survivor Mary Ellen Freda and grandson Julian in the herb garden

The B&B garden soothed her also, especially the rosemary bushes. At least once a visit I would see her out in the garden walking the tiny labyrinth or rubbing her hands along the rough brown branches and inhaling the piney scent of the leaves.

Because she took such delight in the rosemary, I began to make tussy mussies for her to carry when she went for treatment. These are Victorian era bouquets that earlier folks carried to inhale when the castle air went stale because baths were yearly rather than daily. I gave her the first bouquet a bit timidly because I wasn’t sure she would want to be encumbered. Heading to treatment she usually had a full armload of audio-books, stationery and several sweaters.
Turns out she loved the tiny bouquets because they helped her deal with the medical smells that were an inevitable part of treatment.

Another guest, an author from Washington State, stayed in one of my apartments while he experienced weeks of Proton Therapy at UF Health. He seemed to enjoy working in the tiny herb garden at the foot of the apartment stairs. As a result of these experiences, I began to research the connection between gardens and cancer.
There are lots of connections. The most well-known garden center dealing specifically with cancer treatment is the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden, Harvard, MA. This center was created by Bill Thurston in memory of his wife, a gardener and a cancer victim.

The Thurston garden is an Asian-themed one with benches and pools of water. There is a gazebo and quiet corners that encourage individuals to meditate alone or in groups. Alternative therapies are offered in the center’s main building.

Also in Massachusetts, Roberta Hershon has created Hope in Bloom, an organization that provides free gardens for breast cancer patients. Hershon felt helpless when her best friend was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. “I wanted to make it all O.K., but I couldn’t. But I could make sure she had flowers in her house all winter. In the spring, I made sure her garden looked great.”

A nationwide study found more than 50 percent of patients use gardening as a form of outdoor therapy. Dr. Kathy Hezlsouer, who practices at Mercy Medical in Baltimore, found that gardening helped boost survivor stamina by 40 percent.

Closer to home, Mary Ellen Freda’s green thumb gave her the green light to continue her life after extensive cancer treatment. “I believe in the power of good fresh food. I try to grow some of the herbs I use at my restaurant and at home. Both taste and texture are life giving, at least they seem that way to me.”

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