The Spirit Of Healing
By Colette Parsons
Colette is an Urban Designer,
Planner and Landscape Architect
practicing in Vancouver
Photograph of Stinson Beach
Having had cancer has allowed me certain freedoms I never had prior to my illness. One of those freedoms is the ability to talk openly and candidly about my experience. This piece entitled The Spirit of Healing comes from a place deep inside. A place from which we all have the ability to seize and harness energy, but a place few of us tap into until we are confronted with a crisis in our lives. How each person harnesses his or her ability to heal is as different as each person is different.
From my experience with discovering the spirit with which I could heal, I have come to realize that there is a code of silence which surrounds life threatening illnesses, especially cancer. Nobody wants to hear about it, nobody ultimately wants to talk about it. There is a superstition that by talking about cancer, it will invite the illness into our lives. If we invite cancer into our lives, come in contact with it, we may contract it ourselves. People fear what they do not understand and often are not willing to educate themselves to overcome their fears.
I believe it is imperative to hear the voices behind that code of silence. Part of the impetus for this piece is to be one of those voices - to share with you my illness and the aspects of the environment which, I feel, affected its course.
Background And Context
In the fall of 1991, at twenty nine years of age, I was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system. As some background, there are several types: carcinoma's, sarcoma's, Ieukaemia's and lymphoma's. Cancer is an abnormal mutant cell whose rapid division is dangerous to our physiology. Contrary to popular belief cancer cells do not grow more rapidly than normal cells. They merely divide more rapidly causing the malignancy to advance faster. Carcinoma's are cancers related to the skin. Sarcoma's are cancers arising in the bone and their connective tissues. Leukaemia's affect the blood system and lymphoma's are cancers of the lymph system.
Many lymphoma's are manifested in the lymph nodes and are characterized by enlarged or swollen lymph nodes and glands. My lymphoma affected my entire lymph system and manifested itself as small bumps just below the surface of the skin. Although the prognosis for lymphoma is usually good, I had a rare and aggressive form which was difficult to treat. I did, however, have two things going for me. I was young and in excellent shape. I had exercised regularly all my life, eaten well, never smoked and I drank moderately. I was not what one envisions when one thinks of a candidate for cancer.
My treatment for lymphoma began in the late fall of 1991 using chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a specialized drug treatment to eradicate the rapidly dividing cancer cells. After my first round of chemotherapy I landed in the hospital with pneumonia. During that time, my cancer advanced and several new bumps were discovered on my abdomen. This meant that the chemotherapy had failed. My doctor decided to scrap my original chemotherapy regime for a new one and from December to March of 1992 I went through four additional rounds of a new chemotherapy regime. This new regime barely eked me into remission.
Ever since the failure of my first chemotherapy regime in the fall, my doctor had begun preparing me for a bone marrow transplant. Bone marrow transplants are highly dangerous procedures due to the high level of toxic drugs infused through your body with the potential to cause permanent damage to your organs. In my particular case it was my only hope for a cure.
In May, just prior to beginning the bone marrow transplant process, I relapsed. My skin nodules resurfaced larger, in greater number than ever before. My doctors decided, however, to continue with the first stage of a two stage bone marrow transplant in the hope that the higher doses of chemotherapy would achieve another remission. My cancer receded but did not disappear. I still had many nodules all over my body. They were smaller but not gone.
After a month long stay in the hospital, I was elated to get out but uncertain about my future. We had not been successful in our pursuit of a remission, therefore, a transplant was no longer possible. There was talk of maintenance chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from metastasizing further. There was talk of cell re-engineering, a new and highly experimental procedure. My options were very limited and a cure unlikely. It was a very difficult period for me, my family, friends and my doctors too.At that juncture there were several things which were important to me. During my month long hospital stay I had weakened, I had lost weight and my legs had atrophied. I had not eaten because of the high doses of chemotherapy, I had lost my sense of taste and smell, as well as all my hair. I'd been on intravenous food and various other drugs hooked up twenty four hours a day to a machine that constantly ticked and hummed like a metronome. My ability to concentrate and remember was poor and I had been in a very confined and sterile environment.
At the time, I was living, working and being treated in San Francisco. I desperately wanted and needed a break from everything. I needed to regain some equilibrium in my life. Since the onset of my cancer my life seemed to be continually spiralling out of control. My need for solace and escape was heightened because of my illness. I escaped the City and spent some time in the Wine Country and then retreated to Stinson Beach with my family.
What took place in the ensuing weeks away from doctors, hospitals and treatments is considered by many, including myself to be a miracle. As I recovered from my month long hospital stay, I focused my energy in very beautiful and natural environments. During that time I stopped worrying about a cure and redirected my energy into healing and what that meant to me. For my body, I walked the beach twice a day. I ate fresh fruits and vegetables, many out of the garden. For my mind, I meditated and visualized my body without cancer three times a day. I read anything and everything, from fiction to non-fiction to the magazines on gardens, antiques and architecture lying around the house. For my spirit, I watched the sunset every day and tried to breath some life back into a very tired soul. I tended to all the sides of my nature, the physical, the spiritual and the mental sides which needed to be attended to, to regain balance. During that time I went from my suspended state of life in limbo, into remission with the possibility to continue with the transplant. What took place during those weeks I strongly believe was influenced by my surrounding environment. I was at a critical juncture in my illness and that seaside and garden setting played an major role activating healing processes.
If I leave you with nothing else today I would like to leave you with what a healing environment is for me. For me a healing environment is ultimately a sanctuary that allows for active involvement or passivity. The sanctuary is made up of an amalgamation of elements in which plants are just one part of a larger whole. The basis for a nurturing and restoring environment can be discussed in terms of; the framework or the overall structure of an environment; the elements within the framework; and finally, what I am going to call the "essence", or the tactile qualities of the environment.
The framework was the geographical place itself. Stinson Beach, when you spend some time there other than a day trip from the city, is a very special place. It is nestled into the backside of Mt. Tamalpias. The slopes, long and broad, reach down and almost touch the ocean. The landscape itself provides a safe haven. The element of safe haven and of feeling protected is crucial to any nurturing space. In visualization before you focus on your goal, yourself without cancer, the perfect athletic performance, one focuses on a safe and comfortable place. This is a technique to relax your mind so that you can begin to concentrate on your ultimate goal. My safe haven has always been the beach. At Stinson the notion of safe haven was enforced by the hills reaching down and around me. The fingers of the ridges extended out to the ocean on either side. They protected my backside while the open expanse of beach lay before me. For me, the beach was a strong protective metaphor. Even though I was exposed to the elements, I was able to see all around and to see oncoming dangers. At the beach I could choose solace or gregariousness. I could walk the deserted portions of the beach or throw myself into the fray of beach balls, dogs, children, and swimming. I could choose active involvement or to be passive.
Another aspect of the framework was the garden. I believe all gardens are nurturing, restorative and healing in themselves but this garden embodied the notion of sanctuary through courtyards which led from the public street, through a semi-private courtyard, to an inner private courtyard, and eventually to the house. The outer courtyard was rambling with flowers and vegetable patches. The inner courtyard was well protected from the sun and the wind. The garden, like the beach, invited involvement but allowed for passivity as well. There was privacy in the garden and a sense of separation. When I was ill, I needed privacy and separation. The frameworks of the garden and the beach, though different in scale, both suggested safety and protection.
In the garden I found elements which were complementary to the overall framework. These elements were the nature of the plant materials and the complexity of the setting itself. For me there was relief in returning to a more natural world. Tending to the garden and the plants within it was analogous to tending to my body. The time I took caring for the plants, picking off dead heads, weeding, watering and restaking would reap a bounty in the garden. So it was with my body. I felt that if I took care of my body, eating better food, rebuilding my physical strength, and taking the time to meditate, my body would reap the benefits more so than if I neglected it.
Within the garden and its setting was an element of complexity. Complexity is an element which, I believe, invokes involvement. What I saw walking in was not necessarily what I saw when I turned around and walked out. There was something else to focus on. In this case it was a series of artifacts that were scattered throughout the garden. The house I stayed in was owned by two antiquarians. They have travelled extensively and have brought back artifacts, masks, pots, and statuary, from all over the world. I needed to feel that despite the circumstances, there was respite. That respite I found in the garden. In the garden, I could experience a physical notion, similar to meditation, of going far away and then coming back refreshed.
The last category of "essence" is critical to a healing setting. It is the category that embraces the senses; sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. As I mentioned earlier, my sense of taste and smell were suppressed by the chemotherapy. My other senses, sight, sound and touch became more acute. Colour was a significant aspect in that curative space. Colour should be not a riot of colour from all spectrums but a soft range that lies within the blues, purples, pinks and greens with potentially a little red, yellow or orange as accent. In the garden, the brighter colours were in the outer courtyard, the more subtle tones of blues and purples in the inner courtyard. There was a warm subtlety to the colours that invoked tranquility, - tranquility and peace in every corner, in every direction I turned. I can remember the fading light on the hills. The sun bleached hills which intensified as the sun set turning from ochre and orange to pink, violet and finally fading to blue. Even in the interior of the house the colours were soothing; pale yellow in the kitchen, rich, deep reds in the living room. The warm and rich colours of the wood furniture seemed to absorb light. At sunset the deep, rich, introverted colours washed the rooms a glow with the warmest hues.
Sound was another prominent aspect in my healing environment. For me the ocean with its eternal pounding of waves is soothing and calming to the spirit. Even the slightest trickle of water is calming but the endless beat of waves is meditative. I feel I made progress by the water. There was a continual relation to the earth through my senses. After being in the desensitized and institutional environment of a hospital to be able to focus on a bloom of flowers or the ripeness of a tomato, then to pick and eat that tomato was to invite that whole environment in. To shake off the cobwebs of the hospital was refreshing. I appreciated all the sensual aspects of my environment - from the colours, forms and textures in the garden to the sound of the wind and the waves. It was a time to delight in the senses. That house and garden provided a milieu where that could be accomplished.
Again a healing environment is ultimately a sanctuary. For me, the framework of the surrounding hills and garden provided a safe haven. The elements of plants and artifacts mixed with some complexity within the framework allowed for active and passive involvement and the distinct qualities of the setting which stimulated my senses, were the basis, I believe, to the environment I found so nurturing, calming and restorative.
In closing, I would like to return to the notion of breaking the code of silence. I feel that in speaking out I am taking a step towards breaking the code of silence. The more people who hear stories like this the better. There are not enough advocates for people with cancer. Hospitals and the treatment of cancer is physically and emotionally very unpleasant. However, it does not have to be that way. As designers if you can listen to the voices of those with illnesses, I think you can create a sanctuary and ultimately participate in the healing process itself.
In closing, I would just like to mention that after I left Stinson Beach I returned to San Francisco. My doctors were amazed to find no trace of cancer on my body. We suddenly had a window of opportunity and within the week I was back in the hospital for a transplant. That was July of 1992. It has been almost four years since my remission and more than anything else in my life I am very happy and I feel very fortunate to be alive. I am also glad to have had the opportunity to share with you some of my insights.
Part II, The Spirit Of Healing