Dear Garden, I Have Changed: How a Connection With Nature Helped Me Through My Cancer Diagnosis
Photo: Brenda Hensley
In this excerpt from Escape to Reality, the author Mark Cullen shares how his garden has made him grow.
I am a cancer survivor.
In 2013, my GP discovered a spike in my PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood readings.
He sent me to a urologist. “I could be wasting your time. But my only job is to help keep you healthy.” So off I went.
The story that follows was inspired by my experience under the knife and in recovery. I struggled with the idea that my experience could help others and maybe save a life or two. And the short answer is: men, get your PSA test annually and look for movement in the number, not just the number itself.
But what was the connection between my health challenge and my gardening experience?
Read on for the answer.
Last year on New Year’s, I wrote a column titled, “Dear Garden: I Will Change.” It generated more comments and interest from readers than any of my other articles. I pulled it from my files to stimulate some thought on how, in fact, I had changed and why. I hope that this written reflection is as helpful to you as it was for me.
I will listen more
In January 2013, I wrote: “My world is full of noise. Emails fill my head with information and planned responses. This year I am going to be more attentive to birdsong, wind in the trees, and the buzz of a honeybee visiting a nearby flower. I will take more time to absorb the music of nature precisely where I find it. I will turn off my cellphone. I will leave the power equipment in the shed whenever possible.”
I changed all right. Perhaps without making a conscious attempt at listening more, it happened anyway. As the soil warmed and the month of April slipped over the horizon, May gave rise to more than 14,000 daffodils that I had planted on my property over the past seven years.
On May 4, I attended a long-awaited appointment with a urologist. My GP had sent me to get my prostate checked out as the results of recent PSA tests indicated that there may be a problem. During my brief first visit with the specialist it was determined that more tests were recommended, which I undertook.
By mid-May, I had received the news that, indeed, I had prostate cancer. It was serious enough that I needed to give it immediate attention, though it was not life-threatening.
The day the doctor gave me the bad news I drove slowly, in search of some green space. I found a small park, located under a hydro right-of-way with one large tree growing on the margin of the parking lot. I sat on the cool green grass, looked at the tree, and began asking questions.
When I arrived home, I sat on the front porch and watched the feathered wildlife while I continued to ask questions, this time directing them to no one in particular. But the big oak tree in our front yard seemed to be listening.
I will observe more
Last year I wrote: “There was the tiniest of bird nests in one of my dwarf apple trees this past summer. I only noticed it when I drove past it on the ride-on lawn mower and it brushed against my shoulder. It belonged to a finch mother-in-waiting who was more than attentive. She was a saint for sitting on her eggs, five of them smaller than my pinkie fingernail. All bird mothers are saints. Next year, I will get off the ride-on mower and spend more time wandering through my apple orchard without any specific purpose, other than just doing it.”
Well, I did walk through that orchard a lot more this year. For one, the trees grew a prodigious quantity of red, ripe apples that required my attention. When I was not picking them I was watching for the return of mother finch, with no luck.
I will create more
Last year I wrote: “One of the wonders of humankind is our ability to dream and convert dreams into something real. Gardens are the result of this ability. There is, after all, no animal that dreams and creates quite like we do. This ability can destroy nature or build it up.”
On June 13, I was admitted to Toronto East General Hospital to undergo a radical prostatectomy. Two days later I was released. The excellent staff there handed me off to my excellent wife who took me home for the six-week recovery. This journey, I was to discover, was just beginning.
As my body took its own sweet time healing, I was instructed to not push a lawn mower, dig any holes, or swing a golf club until I had the “all-clear” from my surgeon. My next appointment with him was six weeks away. I spent a lot more time on that front porch, watching for hummingbirds, changes in the weather, visitors pulling into the driveway, and imagining an amazing golf swing. The birds and visitors came and—for six weeks—my golf game never looked so good, proving once again that I have an active fantasy life.
And dream I did. I conjured up images of colour and cool shade: an enhanced yard and garden, without the competition of twitch grass or Canada thistles. I imagined a new plan for my acre of vegetables and a green roof over my woodshed. I discovered that when you sit and think long enough you can come up with all kinds of make-work projects.
I will feed and nurture more
Last year I wrote: “If there is just one thing that I have learned from my garden over the years it is this: one reaps what one sows. I feed the soil and the soil gives back aplenty. My vegetable garden is the greatest gauge of this, though the exercise is equally informing with my ornamental trees and perennials. By exercise, I mean the annual practice of adding a large quantity of natural, organic material to the soil in an effort to build up the community of insects, beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizae that make up the foundation of the plants that grow there.”
I put my money where my mouth was on this one. I spread almost 40 cubic metres of mushroom compost/sand mix over my garden (with some help from my friend Rudy, as I had to convalesce). My soil supplier was delighted. My garden has never looked better.
I will share more
I wrote: “This New Year’s I am taking the time to look around me. Who can benefit from my garden? As my vegetable garden grows and matures throughout the season I bring the excess produce to my buddy Ted at his local deli for him to sell. I don’t charge him for it. He sells some of it right off of the shelf and makes his famous pesto sauce and soup with the remainder, which he also sells to his fortunate clientele. The money is turned over to the local food bank.”
So I did and Ted did, too. There was a record crop of tomatoes this year in my garden, perhaps the result of all that hopefulness and praying for a successful recovery spilled over into their roots.
Recover I have. In late July 2013, my urologist told me that I am cancer free and could move on to the monitoring stage of the plan.
Yes, I changed all right. Not in ways that I had predicted a year ago, nor for reasons that I anticipated. But I have changed. Through the miracle of nature’s healing and modern science I am a new man, for better or worse. I am one of the lucky ones. I guess it is up to me to determine which outcome will evolve: the better or the worse.
I look forward to my new garden year with great anticipation and renewed energy. It is up to us to get our knees dirty and feel good about it. To experience gardening in a fuller way. For the men reading this, get your PSA checked annually by a doctor that you trust. Then, perhaps, all of us will have made progress this coming year.