Reach for Recovery

 by Diana Studer
 - gardening for biodiversity 
in Cape Town, South Africa

Winter chill

The shock of hearing my surgeon say – the Treatment of Choice is a mastectomy. Of choice? Mastectomy is a “treatment”. George Sand in Paris appreciated the expertise of surgeons who had just honed their skills in the Napoleonic wars. Fanny Burney wrote in 1812 about her mastectomy, TWO hundred years ago, pre-anaesthetic New Jacksonian blog 2010.  

Winter Chill Pruning tools, follow the path, Great North Plectranthus madagascariensis Blue sage, Dusty Miller
Winter Chill
Pruning tools, follow the path, Great North
Plectranthus madagascariensis
Blue sage, Dusty Miller

… women who were alone, teaching them to join together,
for there is hope in two women,
help in three women,
strength in four,
joy in five …
From Sheri S. Tepper in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall

In a Reach for Recovery meeting, I was relieved to be with other women, who had been there, done that. Newly diagnosed, just treated, or a reminder that the future does still exist. Someone who said – other women have gone this way, made this journey … follow the path, made by their footsteps.

Winter Chill Follow the trail, blue sage pruning tools Dusty Miller
Winter Chill
Follow the trail, blue sage
pruning tools
Dusty Miller 

Christopher LOGUE
English poet (1926- )

”Apollinaire said”

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came,
and he pushed,
and they flew.

Published in London, by Jonathan Cape in 1969 in New Numbers. The poet originally wrote it for an Apollinaire exhibition poster at the ICA, with the title “Apollinaire said”, but it was NOT written by Guillaume Apollinaire.

Summer gold

My Strong Family History. It was a month before her twenty-fifth birthday. With a young husband caring for their toddler, and baby. 50 years later, thanks to surgery and radiotherapy, her daughter can say to a sympathetic doctor – NO, No, my mom is fine! I celebrate the courage that printed the steps I follow in. Her two daughters. Her granddaughter.

Summer Gold Nasturtiums, Tecoma capensis, Leucadendron Celtic cross from my mother, Hibiscus tiliaceus golden lichen
Summer Gold
Nasturtiums, Tecoma capensis, Leucadendron
Celtic cross from my mother, Hibiscus tiliaceus
golden lichen

Tecoma capensis, Leucadendron Hibiscus tiliaceus Celtic cross
Tecoma capensis, Leucadendron
Hibiscus tiliaceus
Celtic cross

A second layer of strong family history, is my mother's mother. She was over 60, and each decade that passes increases your risk. They said, breast-feeding your children protects you from breast cancer. My fault - I had no children. My sister got breast cancer, WHILE breast feeding! Most breast cancer patients have no such family history. We need Vitamin D to fight against breast cancer. Doctor told me they had just compared - Johannesburg gets enough winter sun, but Cape Town does NOT. Night owls and melatonin.

Autumn fire

It was January 2000, as I lay sleepless, between diagnosis, and surgical biopsy, and a mastectomy. The worst fires in Cape Town that I can remember. Everything burned except Cape Point Nature Reserve and half of Table Mountain. On the first programme of Cape Talk radio station Rod Suskin talked about fire as a cleansing or purification ritual. My cancer was only a few millimetres, no need to burn down half of Cape Town! When I looked back at my journal, they were evacuating houses in Constantia and Simon’s Town. In 2009 Porterville had Fire-on-our-mountain.      

Autumn Fire Hibiscus tiliaceus, Groot Winterhoek after fire, Fairisle knitting Nerine sarniensis, dark roses Leucadendron
Autumn Fire
Hibiscus tiliaceus, Groot Winterhoek after fire, Fairisle knitting
Nerine sarniensis, dark roses

Fairisle knitting clover and pansies, Groot Winterhoek after fire Leucadendron Nerine sarniensis
Fairisle knitting clover and pansies, Groot Winterhoek after fire
Nerine sarniensis

W. H. Auden in his poem "Miss Gee" defined cancer as 'foiled creative fire'. Teilhard de Chardin said that when we discover how to be truly loving, we will have discovered the power of fire for the second time. The best words in the English language – this sentence from my surgeon’s report. She needs no further treatment.

Spring promise

I was cared for by a GP who told my sister – Diana is strong, she’ll be fine. A surgeon who answered a thousand questions, and left me with a body I can live in, and a scar I can see and touch. A breast cancer specialist who said – nice scar! – high praise from someone who spends her day looking at mastectomy scars.

Spring Promise Apple blossom, Melianthus major leaf, Ceropegia two Advent candles, brass anchor, fire lily
Spring Promise
Apple blossom, Melianthus major leaf, Ceropegia
two Advent candles, brass anchor, fire lily

'My body is complete, because it ends here'. I have lost the source of that quotation.

As anonymous said
Dust we are
And to dust we shall return
And in between, we plant a(nother) garden.

Two wonderful memories. I would wake each morning and tell my body to stretch, from the tips of my fingers all the way down to my toes. One morning I woke up, told my body to stretch, and, it DID! Second was being carried through the waiting time between two operations, in a state of grace. My Swiss friend lit a candle for me in a church in Austria, and my mother and sisters lit a candle for me in Cape Town. The mind retreated from the horror of the biopsy. Waking up after surgery, with body and mind hand in hand again.

Spring Promise Two Advent candles, fire lily Melianthus leaf brass anchor
Spring Promise
Two Advent candles, fire lily
Melianthus leaf
brass anchor 

The other survivors I met at Reach for Recovery giving me a path to follow as they shared their own journeys. Harvesting the books I read.

"I am no longer afraid of mirrors where I see the sign of the Amazon,
the one who shoots arrows.
There was a fine line across my chest where a knife entered,
but now a branch winds about the scar and travels from arm to heart.
Green leaves cover the branch, grapes hang there and a bird appears.
What grows in me now is vital and does not cause me harm.
I think the bird is singing. I have relinquished some of the scars.
I have designed my chest with care given to an illuminated manuscript.
I am no longer ashamed to make love. Love is a battle I can win.
I have a body of a warrior who does not kill or wound.
On the book of my body, I have permanently inscribed a tree."

©1988 by Deena Metzger

Masked weaver building Today all my images are taken from my archives either in our Porterville garden  or hiking in the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area
Masked weaver building
Today all my images are taken from my archives
either in our Porterville garden 
or hiking in the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area

My experience was inspiration for the four beds at Paradise and Roses in our Porterville garden.

and Berlinde Stadler
Librarian to Porterville

Pictures by Diana Studer  

(Teal blue text is my links.
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  1. through tears I type, oh my gosh, such an inspiration you are to me, such a beautifully written journey, you have touched my very soul,

    1. almost 15 years ago, and it is as if I tell the story of a woman I once knew. I'm grateful that time has smoothed the rough edges - and so looking forward to the False Bay garden and a fresh chapter in our life.

  2. I have no words as my sister goes through this journey...just gratitude for your wonderful words and hopes for a beautiful fresh start in your new garden.

    1. Three of us four sisters are on the journey between treatment, recovery and survival. I'm very much with you and your sister in thought.

  3. Inspirational, wise and very moving. Beautifully told, Diana. P. x

    1. The words not all mine, but as my mother once had a commonplace book, so I collect quotes that speak to me. I pay it forward in the hope that these words will carry the next woman a few steps on her path.

  4. I agree with Laurie. Your writing is full of grace and hope, and so inspirational! Here's to fresh chapters in life!

    1. oh yes, surrounded by boxes and in between sorting many loose ends - we dream of Just the ONE house!

  5. Diana - You are one very strong lady with your feet firmly on the ground. Bless you for sharing your experience with us - you are a shining example of the right attitude being half of the recovery.

    My materal grandmother, and my maternal 1st cousin (once removed) both had mastectomies, which resulted in my not taking HRT's. Thankfully, I have not had any symptoms. Apart from a large benign growth on my right ovary which resulted in an emergency hysterectomy in 2006.

    I pray that your move is swift and hassle-free and that you settle into your new home as soon as possible. Being in transition is very unsettling.

    1. We are mentally in transit, and it is easier now we can pack and organise, instead of waiting, waiting, waiting some MORE!

  6. I admire your truthfulness Diana; there are journeys that are hard at the beginning, hard in the progress and even those that are hard at the end. Thank you for sharing your journey, you make us all stronger. New hope and a new life in a new garden, wonderful.

    1. each time I see 'Christina' I think - one day - I'll join the In a Vase on Monday meme. With step by step photos, and a few links. January?

  7. Diana, The way you have intertwined your experience of cancer and your experience of the garden here is both beautiful and inspirational. -Jean

    1. The garden and the blog have been both practical and virtual ways for me to move on ... to False Bay!!!

  8. Thank you for a beautiful post. A garden is a wonderful way to heal and to move forward. Your post stirred memories of my own. Ten years ago this month I was undergoing treatments for breast cancer. I have been cancer-free since, though my oncologist insists that I still see him once a year. It is nice, though, that I now rarely think about it!

    1. Yes, that turning point in life where every thought is not overlaid with BREAST CANCER!
      Being able to go for a routine checkup, with your heart sinking only a little, till it is all clear still.