I’ve been undergoing chemotherapy of some kind since August of last year, shortly after I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During that same period I’ve continued to be an avid, some would say fanatic, gardener, as I have been for about the last five decades of my life. The two things are linked in my mind. Chemotherapy keeps me alive, albeit with side effects. Gardening enriches my experience of life, an enrichment I require now more than ever.

Peony ‘Abalone Pearl’

Overall, these days I am doing reasonably well. Certainly better than last fall and winter, during the more intensive phase of the chemotherapy. This involved sessions in the hospital every other week of five hours plus, then going home with a portable pump that I wore for two days.

Currently I am receiving chemotherapy via pills that I take twice a day, with a break every third week.

Peony ‘America’. There is no thematic link between the peony pictures and the subject of this post, it’s just that the Peonies are blooming right now.

Many have experienced side effects worse than mine. The main thing is that I tire very easily. There are ongoing digestive issues, though fortunately no nausea. Also, my hands and feet are fairly numb, though this is supposed to wear off in the coming months.

More ‘America’

Back in April I officially moved on from long-term disability to early retirement (I’m 62 years old).

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ in foreground, Peony ‘America’ in backgound.

When the snow finally melted this year I felt like I had been released from prison. I was so eager to get into the garden that I went out to prune the roses while wearing my chemotherapy pump. This was not a good idea, as I snipped an important tube with my secateurs. Fortunately the bag was almost empty and nothing leaked. Also good that the visiting nurse thought it was kind of funny.

When I planned this garden, to the extent that it was planned at all, I didn’t think much about a future of diminished physical capacity. The garden is full of runners and seeders and leaners. It requires constant weeding, editing, staking, cutting back. Then there are the pots that need planting and watering, etc. And there’s a lot of garden to care for: virtually our whole front lot and about half the back consists of beds and borders.

Peony ‘Snow Swan’

Even spending hours in the garden every day, it can be a bit overwhelming. Especially as these days I have to stop and rest more frequently, and I’m just not as strong as I used to be.

And so I’ve had to learn ask for and accept help. This was difficult not so much because of pride as because of possessiveness. I just don’t like other people messing with my plants.

Fortunately my sons Daniel and David have been willing to perform heavy lifting (literally) when they visit. My ever-obliging neighbor Matt mows the portion of lawn we still have. When travel was a problem, our neighbor Nancy brought supplies from the garden center. And my friend Jo Ana has visited about once a month to work an entire day of horticultural labors. I met Jo Ana through Lurie Garden. She knows her stuff and gets more work done in a day than I do in an entire week (buckets and buckets of weeds, for starters).

More ‘Snow Swan’ This is my favorite.

Not related to the garden, but I feel I have to mention our friends Jim and Adrienne who brought me library books and various items from the store. Plus Judy’s book group friends who brought us many dinners when we had to go to the hospital for chemotherapy. And our in-laws bring us home-baked pies and other goodies.

Just starting to bloom in the Parkway Bed and covered with buds.

If I had known the future, I would have planted more well-behaved perennials like Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), which is blooming now. More low-growing or consistently upright grasses, maybe more compact shrubs. But we can’t go back in time, and a garden reboot is hard to contemplate at this moment.

Straight species Bluestar

In any case, despite or maybe because of the challenges, the garden gives me a reason to get up out of my chair. Working among the plants and getting my hands (even if partly numb) in the soil provides a sense of well-being and a positive focus outside of myself. Something about watching bees going about their floral labors always calms me down. Even my fretting (too dry, too cold, too hot for the plants) has me thinking about something other than my illness.

So while the season lasts I will be out in the garden as much as I can, enjoying every hour of sun and every cloudy day.

74 Comments on “Awkward Allies: Gardening And Chemotherapy”

  1. Jason I love this post! I’m 69 now and wondering why I keep expanding the area of the garden, but because of the dryness of eastern Oregon, I have planted mostly low maintenance perennials So once I’m past spring weeding, there is mostly occasional watering…

  2. I see why you love the “Snow Swan” peony! I would like to echo Louise’s comment. I’m older than both you and Louise, and feeling the effects of stiffening joints and muscles. Low maintenance planting is definitely getting my attention. We’ve only been here three years, so lawn reduction is also on my mind, although our lot is still mostly grass. Of course, I suppose I could hire someone to mow… I do hope your treatment continues effective, and you can enjoy your garden for many seasons.

  3. I love this post too, Jason! I found myself thinking about what I would do this morning to lift myself out of the depressing prospect of having to work today – if I had already retired – and thought first I would go out into the garden. I am always happier outside, even as much as I adore my indoor birds (in some ways I think they bring me what I can’t bring in from the outside). I can attest to diminished ability as well just getting older, as I continue to shrink and my strength wanes somewhat. And it seems like the plants always win. But the moments of restoring order, however brief, are always worth it. It’s as if I get to breathe along with the plants and the soil and the breeze. I love your Bluestar – I have some that is blooming now, I think I planted it one or two years ago…

  4. I am happy that the treatent is progressing and allowing you more time in the garden. We have a love/hate relationship with the garden. It is hard when there is a lot to do and you are tired but the love side alwys wins. I have been trying for some years now, using judicious planting, to reduce the work we have in the garden. It is not working. Amelia

  5. Thank you for letting us know how you are doing. I have a person close to me who takes chemo pills every day. The pills keep his issues in check. I sincerely hope your medical plan continues to address your diagnosis and keep it in check. As to stamina in the garden, well, each year is a little tougher. I use to work for maybe 6-7 hours at a time. I’m down to 3-4, and then I need to do something else. As I age, different parts of the body kick in with pain and discomfort, and I can only ignore it so long. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of perennials and moved some shrubs in. This morning I divided day lilies for about an hour, and kept thinking why am I still messing with them. I gave up grasses several years back. I just couldn’t divide them anymore. Do what you can and enjoy that? The weeds will always be there. Applause to all those special people who give of themselves to make your life richer.

  6. Thank you for the update, we wondered how you are doing. I am going to be 80 in October and have survived two heart by-pass operations but thankfully am in reasonably good health and fitness. The amount of work required in the garden can be overwhelming, I began planting more shrubs a few years ago. Pruning seems to take less work than weeding.
    Unfortunately mowing takes less energy than gardening and it is easier and less expensive to hire out. As we age we need to make decisions. If we have the means I am all for reducing the work and spending the money to have the hardest parts done by others. It seems a good business could be had providing knowledeable people to help us in the garden.

  7. Jason, thanks for giving your followers an update on your health. You are fortunate to have various types of helpers. Having retired at 72, and being 75 now, I’m still not doing a good job of simplifying my gardens. Which of my flower children would I put up for adoption?? I’m sure you feel the same! Enjoy your garden time. It is both mentally and physically restorative, although certainly more challenging as we age or become ill. Take care!

  8. It sounds like it has been a tough journey, and I hope your energy levels get better soon Jason. Make the most of the summer months and autumn too, which is a beautiful time in your garden with your tall flowers and grasses too. Gardening has literally saved my sanity this past year and I believe it is absolutely the best therapy for any illness. I am trying to keep my garden low-maintainance as I am starting to feel my age (54), but it is not easy! Good to hear you have friends and family to help. All the best.

  9. I was so happy to read that you are able to putz around the garden. I understand not wanting “too much” help yet sometimes we have to relent, accept the gracious help that comes along. I thought it hilarious that you cut the line on your meds. I image at the time it was discouraging. Your peonies are gorgeous. One of these days you will be recovered and then you can rip and roar though the garden.

  10. Great to have this update and know you are able to garden. I so relate to this phrase from your post now that I am struggling with a bulging disc that makes bending over an issue. ” But we can’t go back in time, and a garden reboot is hard to contemplate at this moment.” I like what Lisa said above, “One of these days you will be recovered and then you can rip and roar though the garden.”. warmest, gail

  11. It’s good to hear that you are doing reasonably well after what sounds like a tough time, and that the garden gives more than it takes away – I think many of us can relate to the essential aspect of gardening you mention – that it takes us outside of ourselves, gives us a focus other than what’s ailing us or annoying us or getting us down. Gardens can be hard work – but it sounds like you’ve got good people who can step in as need be, and hopefully not mess with your plants too much!

  12. I think your word “ally” is exactly right for a garden. What else could work so profoundly with chemo for a gardener? Your peonies are beautiful and surely a bright statement of life from a garden well-loved. With your other followers, I send thanks for your update and hopes for better times.

  13. I am so glad that you have the garden during this time. I underwent a year of chemo a decade ago, with weekly infusions, and I think that the aspect that bothered me the most was that it made me extremely photosensitive – which eliminated any chance of doing garden work.. Thanks to Aloxi (best anti-nausea med ever!) I was not sick but it was tough to have to sit back and watch the weeds take over. Nowadays I have to limit my gardening stints because of other reasons/conditions but it still has a healing power above and beyond anything else I know. Be well, and best wishes.

  14. Jason .. you are an inspiration .. and your thoughts about the garden are so familiar .. I too struggle with having help because I am such a control freak (there I said it our loud ? LOL) I have worked on my gardens for 20 years , gone through so many “renovations” killed so many plants, and found the new ones to replace them .. I am trying to renovate again to make things easier but I fail much of the time because I love difficult plants .. I get exactly what you are talking about. That incredible drive we feel from our gardens is amazing and it works against what ever infirmities we have to deal with. It brings light to our lives. I am so lucky to have a wonderful husband that gets “that” about me .. and I get that he is a “golfer” we compliment each other I guess ? .. but yes .. the garden gives us so much it is hard to turn down ?
    I’m glad your nurse thought the snipping was a funny story ! LOL
    Be well, and rest between the passion !

  15. Yours is a somewhat familiar lament. I helped many people “downsize” their gardens as they realized they simply weren’t able to take care of them any longer. You can come up with a surprising number of beautiful low maintenance perennials when you put your mind to it. Of course weeding never stops but that’s what I was there for.
    I’m happy to hear that you are still able to get out and garden, and happy to hear that you have so many willing friends and family to help out.
    I do hope that you and Judy will have plenty of time now to just sit and enjoy the beauty of it all.

  16. Jason, thank you for this blog. Gardening is indeed balm for the soul and your lovely pictures of peonies and amsonia give us all pleasure. You have a heavy row to hoe and it is good to hear about the help and generosity you are receiving from friends, family, and neighbors.
    I am not in your situation but as I age, I find I cannot cope with the half acre lot that I dug and planted with flowers and shrubs by hand myself forty years ago. I have to make peace with the fact that I must return a lot of it to grass and shade trees and enjoy the smaller planted areas which I am still able to manage. Onward!

  17. Jason and Judy, I can’t disagree with any of the sentiments and comments others have made. What strikes me, though, is the true honestness of your post. That’s not easy. Much simpler is to write the facade. Thank you for avoiding that.

  18. Sorry to hear of your health problems, but it sounds as if things are being taken care of and keeping things in check. Seems as though you have a strong support system and that is a true blessing. Being outdoors is wonderful therapy, I have a friend who says that whenever she doesn’t feel well or is in a pessimistic frame of mind she just goes out in the garden and gets something (anything) done and comes back in feeling much, much better.

    I know about having a large garden and all the time it takes to keep things in order. I’ve been trying after numerous beds were obliterated with trenching for basement waterproofing and subsequent installation of a fence. My plan has been to put in shrubs as much as possible filling in a bit with perennials. Well, that’s going pretty well but beds are being enlarged here and there and a new one is planned for this fall. There are soooooo many plants that are sooooo beautiful that not making a space for them is just not something that I can follow through on. That’s the problem with being a gardener, the temptations are as overwhelming as the work involved in taking care of the added flowers.

  19. I agree with all the comments that have been made about your illness and the power of the garden…many thanks for sharing your thoughts and frustrations of the last year. I’m glad you were able to get back into the garden, despite the long drawn out process of treatment and side affects. I always enjoy your posts, and I’ve learnt a great deal about gardening through them, so I hope you can continue to pace yourself and enjoy both your gardening and your blogging. Best wishes to you and Judy.

  20. I have been wondering how you were getting on so it was good to have the update. It must have been a difficult year for you both, how lovely to have such a supportive family and helpful friends. I don’t know how non- gardeners manage withou the solace and healing that a garden provides. I am glad yours continues to give you so much pleasure. I love your peonies.

  21. I, too, am going to echo many of the other comments. First of all, so grateful for the update. Very glad that the chemo, despite its side effects, is doing its job. Yes, gardens can be a great solace in hard times. Something uplifting about being outside among all that is blooming and growing. Wonderful to read about all the help you are getting. Garden on, Jason! Garden on.

  22. Thanks for the shoutout, and we are always happy to help! I have a constant feeling of ‘overwhelm’ too. But every time I walk the dogs or the kids past your garden it is a moment for me when I can take a pause from the overwhelm. The whole neighborhood enjoys your hard work.

  23. Thank you for this garden-focused update on your state of being, I have been wondering how you’re doing. As I contemplate an elective surgery that would keep me from caring for the garden for a month or two, the idea of asking for help from others is a huge stumbling block. Good to know you’re getting some help.

  24. I’ve really admired your commitment to your blog during this trying time of your life. I believe your beloved takes the photos (?) and I’m sure your partnership has been an anchor for the blog and life. Gardening is such an affirmation of life, even when frustrated that a plant isn’t doing well, or that bit of the garden you thought was going to be a winner… isn’t. Anyhow, wishing you good health and you and yours all good things!!

  25. Wishing you good health. Gardening was such a joy to my husband and myself during 2020, and years prior, even as aging, back issues and shoulder issues force make us cut back. I remember my childhood best friend, during her cancer treatment, kept gardening on her small Brooklyn plot. She worked around various challenges because of photo sensitivity and feeling cold all the time, but it gave her so much joy. I wish you all good things and many joys in the years to come.

  26. I’m sorry to read of your illness, Jason. Health challenges are no picnic. Gardening is wonderful therapy, IMO. It keeps me sane, to say the least. In the last decade, I’ve had to let go of a few of my beds as I don’t have the energy I once had. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!” I still have six, but I made the move to start incorporating more shrubs and less fussy perennials in recognition that as I age, I won’t be able to keep up without a lot of help and expense. Like you, I’d rather do my own gardening. 😉

  27. I’m delighted to hear that you are feeling better and that you have your garden to inspire and distract you. Wonderful too that you are getting so much support and help, long may that continue. What beautiful peonies, especially the pink and white ones, just beautiful. Here’s to a retirement filled with gardening, you won’t miss a bloom now.xxx

  28. Hello Jason, congratulations on your early retirement, even if it might not have been quite in the way you envisaged. I hope your cancer treatment is a success as well. I’m happy to hear that you have such a large and varied support network to help you and that gardening is getting you on your feet again.

  29. Jason, I appreciate your candid sharing of how to keep a garden while dealing with illness. Nearly everyone faces diminished capacity to keep up with it all at some point, so your post has lessons for every gardener. But the most important, I believe, is that you continue to find joy and meaning by gardening. Best wishes to you for a swift recovery.

  30. I’m so happy for this update. It’s good to know that you’re still in the garden, and that the side effects of your therapies haven’t side-lined you entirely. I smiled at your question: how do non-gardeners cope? For me, the prototyical non-gardener, it’s a matter of enjoying nature’s garden. I don’t plan or plant, but I drive and hike, and reap some of the same rewards: especially the ability of nature to take us outside of myself, and those nagging human concerns that lurk everywhere. I hope your summer’s marked by decreasing concerns, and increased energy!

  31. Wishing you continued strength and success with your treatment. My father, an avid gardener, also battled pancreatic cancer, and gardening was a grounding force and great joy. Your garden looks lovely! Thank you so much for sharing this gift with all of us through your blog. And let’s keep hoping for more options in pancreatic cancer treatment, too.

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