How can a personal healing garden help a breast cancer patient?

Perhaps most important for a healing or therapeutic garden is its ability to help the person regain a sense of control and hope in their life. One woman’s story is here.  For her, and for other cancer patients, a garden is balm – a comfort and support.

For those who are chronically ill, positive and hopeful feelings increase in an outdoor environment. And for one group of these chronically ill people, one organization has taken this to the home landscape. Hope in Bloom  is a Massachusetts 501(c) (3) nonprofit that plants flower or vegetable gardens free of charge throughout the state at the homes of women and men undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Some gardens are installed indoors or on a patio in containers, while others are in-ground.

Design considerations for a cancer patient’s garden                                               

A healing garden at the home of someone who has cancer must be planned with the active participation of the person who is a patient. Unique physical changes can occur in the body during or after treatment that influence design.

  • Chemotherapy can affect the sense of smell, making a strongly scented garden far from appealing. A healing garden’s design emphasis can use sound and visual interest instead.
  • Especially during treatment, fatigue is common. A home healing garden should integrate resting areas as a deliberate part of the design. Avoid plunking down a willy-nilly batch of benches.
  • Consider that some plant shapes or colors can be reminiscent of treatment. A healing garden should be adaptable, allowing change over time as the patient’s sense of involvement with nature increases and she or he becomes a survivor.
  • Plan for long-term effects of the disease. Some treatments can affect the nerves, resulting in loss of feeling in the fingers. The healing garden may include plants with prickles such as holly or yucca, depending on the homeowner’s geographic location, memories of past landscapes, and plant preferences. But plants that could injury the person unknowingly should be placed in locations where their shapes and textures can be enjoyed at a distance instead of nearby.

Is there research to back up the idea of a healing garden?

I’ve blogged a bit before about the expanding research about the interaction of humans and the natural world. The studies’ results continue to show multiple physical and mental benefits of connecting with nature. For the cancer patient, these health results can be important in speedy recovery.

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower heart rate
  • Lower cortisol levels
  • Increased endorphin production
  • Increased bone density
  • Reduced depression
  • Lower anxiety
  • Greater focus and concentration

The connection to nature may start in a hospital’s healing garden or a garden at home. The sense of control can start with recognizing there is still order in the world - the sun rises and sets, the seasons change, the rain falls. Then a home garden can increase this sense of control as the patient moves from watching birds to feeding the birds, from watching butterflies to selecting plants that attract them, from glancing at the trees through the window to deliberately having breakfast on the porch or sitting under a backyard tree at lunchtime. The easy access to a carefully planned home garden for a cancer patient makes it a precious resource for solace, relief of stress, and an opportunity to begin feeling normal again.