Life and renewal in the garden – a cancer survivor’s story

Raised vegetable bed. Photo by Donna Helmes

Raised vegetable bed. Photo by Donna Helmes

Donna Helmes signed up for the Therapeutic Landscapes Network newsletter last week, and in the optional “tell us a little about yourself” box, she said that she was a cancer survivor. I asked whether she would share her story for the TLN Blog, and here it is.

In 2008, during a routine mammogram, an eagle-eyed radiologist discovered my invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer. A double mastectomy and 4 rounds of chemotherapy followed.  I thought my life was over before it ever really began.  I was filled with regret over all my past missed opportunities and I grieved for things I believed that I would never have, such as a child of my own.  I struggled to find the strength to face my disease and endure treatment.

Donna Helmes during treatment

Donna Helmes during treatment

During my recuperation from surgery, my mother bought me a pack of seeds and a pink gardening kit.  I was unimpressed.  I lived in an apartment and I had cancer.  I wasn’t in the mood to take on a new hobby, especially one that might involve bugs! My mom would not be deterred. She planted the seeds in a tray and placed it in my laundry room.  She left me strict instructions about watering, and when and how to repot the seedlings when the plants were large enough.

Donna Helmes flowers. Photo by Donna Helmes

Annuals on the deck. Photo by Donna Helmes

So as not to disappoint her, I half-heartedly followed her instructions. I watered the tray of seeds and placed them in a sunny location.  I checked on them every day. After a few weeks, a funny thing started to happen.  I found myself looking forward to watching the progression of my little flower seedlings.  I was happy and more than a little excited when the plants were big enough to be transplanted.  After a few more weeks, as I neared the end of my chemo treatments, the flowers began to bloom.  I realized that the flowers symbolized so much for me about life and renewal and health.  I was transfixed by the lovely profusions of colors and textures and smells.  I rejoiced in the blossoms as much as I rejoiced at the end of chemotherapy.

From then on, the strength and beauty found in something so delicate inspired me.  I discovered that I felt calmer and could forget about cancer when I tended to my flowers. Each day brought a new discovery about the plants. I discovered that I loved digging in the dirt and caring for my plants (bugs be damned!).  I enjoyed learning about the rhythms of life and how a little sun, some water and lots of love can produce something wondrous.  It felt good to feel the warmth of the sun on my bald head and my arms felt more flexible after a few rounds of weeding.

Bella. Photo by Donna Helmes.

Bella, laughing

Today, I have my own house with a little backyard. I grow flowers, organic vegetables and all sorts of plants.  This year I even I added strawberries.  My beautiful baby girl, whom I adopted last fall, enjoys being next to me outside while I weed, water and tend to my garden.   We take pleasure in nature and our souls benefit from all the beauty around us.  And my mom? She couldn’t be happier for her daughter, the gardener.

Thank you so much, Donna, for your story and pictures!

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