The Nature Cure: Cancer and the Outdoors

December 21, 2015
AMC Outdoors Jan/Feb 2016: The Nature Cure
Courtesy of Katy KelleherAfter his diagnosis, Garrett and Katy forged a new relationship between cancer and the outdoors.

Cancer came roaring into our lives in the coldest part of the year—a fitting entrance for a brutish disease. My boyfriend, Garrett, was diagnosed with lymphoma in March. Where we live, in Maine, March isn’t even mud season. It’s winter, plain and simple, filled with icicles and hoarfrost and cabin fever.

There’s never a good time to receive bad news, but the seemingly endless winter of 2015 conspired to make an awful thing even worse. At the time, Garrett was 29 years old. I was 27. We had been living together for years, slowly building a life. Of all the twists and turns I had imagined, cancer wasn’t one of them.

But life doesn’t conform to expectations, and when someone you love is gut-punched by a cellular mutation, you take what steps you can in the direction of hope. We drove to Dana-Farber for second opinions. I scheduled appointments and wrote down questions for doctors. Garrett underwent surgery, then chemotherapy, then radiation. Through it all, we stayed sane by staying ourselves. For us, that meant spending time outside.

Our courtship had been one of long New England hikes in the Berkshires and summer nights under the stars at Baxter State Park. Early in our relationship, when we were still in Boston, Garrett discovered the swiftest way to cheer me up was to go swimming at Walden Pond or for a walk in the Middlesex Fells. I learned that Garrett was most himself when he could pick up leaves and lecture me about botany. He loved to point out horsetails, those prehistoric wonders we see on the riverbanks of the Androscoggin. As he became ill, and later, as he recovered, we tried to keep our outdoor excursions regular, although they did shrink in size.

We couldn’t go camping, but we could navigate our canoe through the tall grasses of the Scarborough Flats, in southern Maine. Garrett’s shoulder was too stiff for snowboarding, but we could snowshoe around Wolfe’s Neck State Park. As the weather warmed, Garrett’s chemotherapy left him sensitive to sunburn. The beach was out of the question, but we could stroll under the thick canopy of Grafton Notch. Instead of lounging at Sebago Lake, we took our dogs out at night, running along the Presumpscot River until they were panting and we were slicked with sweat. We strung up a hammock in our backyard, and Garrett would retire there after treatments with a big bottle of Gatorade, swinging in the shade while I worked in the garden nearby.

An afternoon in a hammock certainly won’t cure cancer, but it did provide us both with something we needed. It gave us an opportunity to reconnect with each other and to the outdoors—a space so much larger and vaster than ourselves. Some people have religion. We have long walks in nature.

I’m not the first person to see the outdoors as healing. Other cultures have words that capture the concept beautifully. In Norway, there is Friluftsliv, which translates to “free air life” and defines a lifestyle spent in the sun and snow. Germany has Waldeinsamkeit, a combination of Wald (woods) and Einsamkeit (solitude) that describes the feeling of wonder you get from being in nature. But my favorite comes from Japan: shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”

We don’t have a term for this in English—a short visit to the forest—but I know the practice well. In the past year, Garrett and I have gone forest-bathing whenever we could, stealing walks or drives with the windows down. Fresh air doesn’t solve all of your problems, but it can soothe the soul and make burdens a little lighter. It gave me mental clarity when I needed it most.

Much has changed in the year since Garrett found the tumor in his chest. His cancer is in remission. We’re closer as a couple. (We’re also engaged.) I know that, no matter what life throws at us, we’ll be able to handle it. If it takes some forest-bathing to put things in perspective, that’s all right. The woods will be there for us, and we’ll be there for each other.


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Katy Kelleher

Katy Kelleher is a writer and editor who lives in a small house in Portland, Maine, with two dogs and one fiancé.