The ob-gyn’s hands came to a screeching halt as she examined my abdomen. She declared she felt a mass on one ovary, something I had been completely oblivious to, despite the fact that it was, as she said, the size of an orange. The doctor quickly corrected herself: actually, it was the size of a grapefruit. Frankly, I was less concerned about the precise type of citrus than the mere fact of its existence.
I had walked into this doctor’s office for my routine annual gynecologist exam on a beautiful April day, a single, 44-year-old mother to a 7-year-old daughter. I walked out convinced I was a woman who was about to die and never see my girl grow up. The only women I’d heard of with ovarian cancer were Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner and Nancy on the TV show thirtysomething.
After extensive surgery, the pathology report declared I had not just one, but two cancers, ovarian and endometrial (that’s the lining of the uterus). To rid me of what I called my “two-for-one deal from hell,” I’d need both chemo and radiation. I spent the summer being pumped full of drugs that killed the remaining cancer cells, along with my hair follicles, appetite, and energy.
My body felt like it was no longer owned by me. What, I wondered, could help bring me back to myself?
I kept coming back to a local botanical garden. Filled with a profusion of tulips in the spring and bountiful rose bushes in the summer, it was the most beautiful, peaceful place I could imagine within five miles of my home, about as far I was able to travel in those days. In the early mornings on days I wasn’t working, after dropping my daughter off at day camp, I would drive to the gardens and begin my slow amble through its winding paths. Earlier, a friend had mentioned that visualization might help, envisioning myself healthy and whole again. I didn’t put much credence into that at the time—it was just the kind of New Age-y mumbo jumbo I despised.
And yet, as I walked, I’d find myself focusing on breathing in the colors around me and breathing out a blackness that symbolized the cancer. I listened to the chickadees trilling their “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” song, and watched the bees peacefully collect their pollen. It was a walking meditation of sorts, and kept me going through that long cancer year.
On a paved oval loop around the gardens, I passed turtles sunning themselves on rocks in the pond. Fish flashed beneath the water, while ducks skimmed across its surface. The humid summer melted into fall, and the Japanese maples and dogwoods turned crimson. My arduous slog through chemo finally came to an end. It was time for radiation. The daily schedule of being bombarded with radiation made it hard to get to the gardens often. I had little energy to do more than work, order pizza for dinner, and flop into bed.
But I missed my walks.
I finished radiation on December 31, which couldn’t be more symbolic. Once the weather warmed and the weeping willows were tinged with the first green of spring, I was back at the gardens. After so long submitting to whatever difficult treatment would rid me of cancer, suddenly there was a void: I was told there was nothing I could do to actively keep the cancer at bay. So I just tried to breathe in the essence of the gentle pink cherry blossom petals, and I kept walking.
In 2020, I again found solace in the botanic gardens, first from the chaos and fear of the early days of the pandemic, and then in the summer when the doctors informed me that I have another kind of deal from hell: I have a genetic mutation called Lynch syndrome, which greatly raises the risk of a number of cancers. This means that while I survived often-fatal ovarian cancer, there could be more cancer in my future.
This spring at the botanic gardens, strands of crystals were draped from the wisteria arbor. Each strand symbolizes a person in my county who died of COVID-19. By mid-April, 1,500 strings of crystal dangled from above, reflecting and refracting the warm spring sunlight. The installation is called Facets of Hope.
For those who have lived through both cancer and the pandemic year, the crystals’ dancing light offers a symbolic path out of darkness. They cast rainbows onto nearby walkways and benches. They, like the gardens I’ve visited so many times in times of darkness, are a reminder that even during the most difficult days there can be color, beauty, and peace.
Barbara Ruben is a freelance journalist who has written for The Washington Post and served as managing editor of a group of newspapers for older adults.