Cancer Survivor Nurtures Her Garden of Life After Losing Her Spouse and Facing Cancer

One cancer survivor's garden helped her to cope and stay active during diagnosis, through treatment and into remission.

Audrey Hepburn once said, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” This is especially true for Patti Morelli, who used her garden as a healing therapy throughout a diagnosis and treatment of metastatic stage 4 lung cancer.

“I would go out there and just (putter) around, even if I didn’t feel well,” Morelli said in an interview with CURE ®. “I’d just go out in the garden. ... I could always come in the house and go to sleep, but at least I made myself do something and (watched) the flowers bloom.”

To date, she has planted over 40 types of flora and fauna in what she calls her “healing garden,” as well as trellises robust with tropical mandevilla — all of which attract a plethora of butterflies.

PLANTING THE SEED

Leading up to her diagnosis of lung cancer, Morelli kept busy. She owned a medical billing company and was a caregiver to her husband who had a massive stroke in 2008, which left him with impaired speech and partially paralyzed on the right side of his body. In 2010, they decided to move to Oxford, Florida, for the sunny weather and lower cost of living. In 2017, they moved to Stuart, Florida, to be closer to the ocean.

Two years later, Morelli came down with the flu, which led her to find a new primary care doctor at Cleveland Clinic Martin North Hospital in Stuart (she had been meaning to do this for a while, but caretaking responsibilities for her husband took precedence). “I told (the doctor) I was a past smoker and I had something in my thyroid in the past, so she automatically ordered four tests, which were CT of my lung, ultrasound of my throat, bone density and mammography,” Morelli said. “And I went for those tests on Thursday night at 5:00. And at 11:30 a.m., their office called me and said that my bone density came back bad, and would I want to go on medicine? Or would I want to come in to see the doctor? I said no, I’ll just go on the medicine, no problem. An hour later, they called me back and they said we need you to come into the office.”

Immediately, a PET scan was ordered for that Monday and an appointment at Stuart Oncology Associates was scheduled for Tuesday. There, she received a diagnosis of lung cancer with a prognosis of one year to 18 months to live. Morelli was 62 years old.

Immediately, the oncologist set up a biomarker test to see if Morelli was a candidate for immunotherapy. “When I went to my doctor, he knew I wasn’t crazy about chemotherapy. ... I’ve seen so many of my friends pass away and deteriorate away and I said, ‘If I’m going to die, I don’t want to deteriorate,’” she said.

The oncologist and Morelli decided on treatment with Keytruda (pembrolizumab), given intravenously through a port. Her first year consisted of treatments every three weeks, while the second year was every six weeks. Morelli did not undergo any surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.

Within three weeks, her lymph nodes had shrunk and within three months, the cancer had stopped growing altogether.

OTHER ELEMENTS AT PLAY

While a diagnosis of lung cancer is overwhelming enough, Morelli also had to think about her husband. “That was my hardest part of trying to understand (my diagnosis). The dying part, I wasn’t that upset. I think I was more upset over him because it was (the question of ) who was going to take care of him,” she explained. “If I go, I had a great life, I’ve had a very big, crazy life, but I really lived my life. You know, it wasn’t that I did nothing. I had three children. I have two grandchildren. If God is going to take me, I believe in God, and if that’s his calling for me, then that’s his calling for me. ... Everybody has a time clock in this world. We don’t know when it’s going to end. And when you get up, you are alive and you need to live.”

Between her diagnosis and the demands of treatment, Morelli ended up having to place her husband in independent living, but she came by frequently to visit and take care of small chores.

In 2020, it all changed. “When COVID-19 hit, I couldn’t go any longer, and then I had to pay somebody. I just don’t know how I survived that year; it was a horrible year,” Morelli said of not being able to see her husband while he was in independent living. “Last time my family and I saw him was at the hospital after suffering from a massive heart attack.”

STARTING TO LIVE AGAIN

On September 2, 2021, Morelli was declared cancer free. “I feel like I’m taking baby steps to live again,” she explained, noting that some of those steps include helping with a local fundraiser. This is the first time in over 12 years that she has been able to live completely for herself and not as a caregiver or patient.

Morelli said gardening “keeps me going every day,” continuing to keep her in a positive mindset and moving her forward in life. She also hopes to start bird-watching. Morelli added, “I believe nature heals you, I really do — just going out getting yourself out of the house, (even) if it’s just taking a walk.”

It’s moments like those that keep her happy. “I remember years ago, I had a therapist who said, ‘Don’t look for a happy day, just look for a happy moment in the day. And if you go to sleep at night, don’t have all your worries upon you and think about how bad your day was. Think of that one happy moment of the one thing that made you smile today,’ she said. “And it’s really funny because it really does work.”

Listen to CURE®’s podcast with Patti Morelli, where she talks about losing her spouse during cancer treatment.

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