Planting Hope in My Garden After Cancer

A pancreatic cancer survivor explains how gardening helps him feel at peace.

With the songbirds once again winging tunes like thrown-together street bands and a rainbow of flowers bursting forth, I am happy to be back in my garden. Beyond planting hope in my garden, I plant carrots, radishes, spinach and onions for garden salads, and lettuce and tomatoes for thick BLTs. And of course, I plant jack-o-lanterns too. Each fall I invite a couple of neighbor kids over to harvest a pumpkin or two for Halloween. All this makes me feel alive.

Nothing makes me happier than having both hands sunk deep into rich black topsoil. Damp clumps of dirt between my fingers blackening my hands helps me remember I am but dirt and will return to dirt no matter how self-important I may feel. Or as Genesis 3:19 says so well, “[F]or dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Sometimes when I am digging, I happen upon an earthworm who had been going about their business burrowing through the warm soil. Not wanting to harm it, I let it wriggle away back from where it came.

Now it has been over seven years since I faced pancreatic cancer, where only five out of a hundred people see five years, which is a death sentence for most. For some reason unknown to me it let me wriggle away too.

Being out in my garden helps me to:

Embrace the cycle of life.

After an all too long winter, there is something magical about spring. For me, it is a resurrection of sorts. As the days grow longer and the soil warms, things once dead break forth anew. Bright green foliage emerges on the raspberry and blackberry shoots forcing off last year’s dead leaves. Buds burst out on the bare blueberry canes. Sorry-looking brownish patches of strawberries put forth new growth. This reminds me to embrace the cycle of life.

Keep my life in check.

In the past, all I could grow in my garden were zillions of hearty weeds until I discovered raised-bed gardening (defined boundaries if you will). These keep everything in check and make weeding a breeze. Setting boundaries, not letting my cancer overrun me like weeds, has helped me keep my life in check.

Start living again.

Like so many, I have found my post-cancer journey to be more stressful than when I was in active treatment. Back then, I was in the fight. I was on a mission to stay alive. Now, post-treatment, although I am living life to its fullest, I am haunted. I wonder if my cancer will come roaring back when I least expect it. While I don’t think about this minute-by-minute, the idea hangs over me, sometimes stopping me from living. Being out in the garden helps me to live again.

Stay on top of the weeds.

No matter how much I try to stay on top of the weeds, like a cancer they seem to grow inches overnight. Post-cancer, I have a raft of appointments with various specialists dotting my calendar like weeds. Not that I want to go to these, but it is part of my routine much like weeding my garden. I have found my days are much easier if I stay on top of these weeds of life.

Gain a smidgen of control over my life.

Life on a good day is dang hard. There are no words to describe what a cancer day is like. None. Unlike battling cancer, where there seems to be weeds and more weeds, where for everything that goes right two things go wrong, where I had little if not zero control, my garden gives me a smidgen of control over my life.

Harvest peace within myself.

Few things are as unsettling as getting that call from our doctor saying, “Your recent lab results show something suspicious. We need you to run some additional tests just to be safe.” My garden grounds me in a way that is hard to describe. I follow the directions on the back of the pack of seeds word for word. With some water and TLC, a few days later, tiny bits of life poke their sleepy heads up out of the dirt. Life once again seems normal. I harvest peace within myself.

Anyone can do it.

The dirty little secret about gardening is anyone can do it. It can be as simple as a couple of pots on an apartment windowsill or an elaborate one like my 30-by-60-foot garden with raised beds and a timed watering system. With the internet or a visit to a local nursery, anyone can do it.

In closing, planting a garden offers you a simple way to embrace the cycle of your life, keep it in check, start living again, stay on top of the weeds, gain a smidgen of control and harvest peace. Even you can do it.

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