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My Survival Garden: Overcoming Ovarian Cancer


While recovering from ovarian cancer and chemotherapy, I got it into my head that I needed a garden space. My garden represents not only my physical labor, but also my focus, which is on the future.

After cleaning up underneath seven skinny white pine trees in our small backyard in coastal Maine for 17 years, we had the trees taken down. I now had the perfect place for a new garden, right? Not exactly, unless we had the trunks yanked and all the roots torn up — snaking under our barn, sneaking beneath our neighbor’s formal garden, traveling under the deck and maybe even snarking into the ancient sewer pipes for the town of Brunswick.

While recovering from ovarian cancer and chemotherapy, I got it into my head that I needed a garden space in the newly vacant area, not a garden per se, as in dig among the roots and try to find a space to plant a bleeding heart or wind flower.

I paced off an area around six of the pine trunks and made a couple of visits to Lowe’s Hardware. I found the perfect cut stone shaped like the old granite curb stones around my other gardens. My sister and I laid them out over black landscape cloth to prevent weeds from poking up among my plans. That is p-l-a-n-s, not plants. Having a plan for anything other than what to eat when I did not want to eat, or how to sleep through Taxol-induced thigh pain in the night was novel at this point. However, as all survivors of chemotherapy know, a plan is needed to get from step A to step B or it doesn’t happen. We loaded in twenty bags of black mulch and spread it thickly.

First came two cheap (but impressive) imitation Grecian urns, into which went two small evergreens. I did not get beyond the two urns for a few weeks, but I was able to walk out in my back yard and focus on the space itself. I am a fan of solar garden stakes and I found one that looks like a globe. It changes colors, and when it turns brilliant sapphire blue the little globe looks like a miniature world. By this time, I was about seven months out from chemotherapy and things made more sense without someone else telling me they did.

From the barn, I brought my prized urn with a big golden sun painted on front and placed this on one of the center stumps. Next came a huge chunk of quartz we brought up from an area beach. Many terra cotta pots live in my barn, so I had several to choose from. One facet of chemo-brain is that though I might see that something is possible, doable or even advisable, this does not always translate into action. Pots, I was ready to choose, but then I would not take those chosen pots and set them aside, so a few days later I’d have to go through the process again. Finally, come early May, I was ready to go buy some plants, operating from a list so that I would not end up going out for coffee or shopping for shower gel instead.

Into my 1988 killer-red, Formula Firebird muscle car I jumped and off I zoomed to my local Skillin’s Nursery for one of my favorite activities: browsing among all the new spring annuals. Pansies, petunias and marigolds like the sun, so I chose these three plants along with some trailing ivy. Nothing fancy at this point in my recovery, just a blooming riot of color to break through the cancer fog.

My new space is dramatic and beautiful. Every day I look at the new garden and pay the respect due to the fact I have faced cancer with dignity and worked hard at recovery. Attitude is not everything, but it is a big part of the fight. My garden represents not only my physical labor, but also my focus, which is on the future. Every day, every week and every flower that blooms is a special time; a reminder that if my cancer was not caught as early as it was, I might not be here. God willing, I will be here in the upcoming spring to plant again.

2019 Update: After I planted my garden in the spring of 2010, I battled two relapses. My beloved sister, Candi, died of mouth cancer in December 2012 and my husband and I left our lovely Maine home in June 2013 to live near our son in Portland, Oregon. I went through a clinical trial with Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois. In 2016 my brother battled acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and survived, and now his daughter is fighting breast cancer.No, I did not make this up. I enjoy being near my son and his family. I miss the coast of Maine and my good friends, but I am always working in the new garden space here in Portland.

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