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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Gardening brings therapy, hope to Long Island cancer survivors

Gardens provide a place for cancer patients to reflect, commune with nature, and gain emotional - and physical - strength.

Kelly White-Rubin in the backyard garden  she

Kelly White-Rubin in the backyard garden  she tends at her home in Sayville. Photo Credit: Daniel Brennan

As Kelly White-Rubin trims one of her nine butterfly bushes, she listens to the sounds of hummingbirds that flutter nearby, sipping nectar from a carefully placed feeder. She continues to work in her Sayville garden, incorporating coffee grinds and eggshells in her vegetable bed and digging out the bee balm that spreads with reckless abandon.

Some might consider this work, but to White-Rubin, it imparts a sense of calm. Listening to birds sing, feeling the sun on her face and reveling in the miracle of watching seedlings grow into something beautiful or tasty does her soul good, even as it requires physical exertion and stamina.

A NATURAL OASIS

Nineteen years ago, White-Rubin, now 59 and mother to two grown sons, didn’t have much stamina. After her first routine mammogram, at 40, she was found to have breast cancer. She underwent two surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy over the course of about a year.

“I was pretty weak when I was going through therapy, and had a 2- and a 4-year-old,” she remembered. “But after I got my strength back, I started working in the yard.” Beginning with those butterfly bushes, White-Rubin, a chef at a group home for people who are mentally disabled, gradually transformed her yards, front and back, into an oasis, replete with herbs, berries, three seasons of flowers, and the wildlife they bring — butterflies, bees, orioles and blue jays, which, she said, enjoy the peanuts she feeds them.

She and her husband, David Rubin, enjoy sitting in the garden, surrounded by a revolving door of seasonal color from hyacinths, bluebells, lupines, Chinese lanterns, hydrangeas, bridal veil, feverfew, tiger lilies and Oriental poppies, her favorite, planted after first spotting them growing en masse outside a train in France.

Others enjoy White-Rubin’s handiwork, too. “People like to walk through the garden,” she said. “Friends and neighbors like to come by, and when we have a garage sale, visitors ask if they can take a look.”

For his part, David, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer three years after his wife became sick, helps with the digging. He put in a rock garden, built a pond and set up birdhouses and feeders.

The couple gardens organically. “We didn’t want any chemicals after what we went through, and we also have a dog,” explained White-Rubin, who daily enjoys the retreat she’s created. “I just feel very relaxed when I’m working in the yard,” she said. “It’s in my blood. I feel relaxed and in peace. I don’t know what it is about a garden, there’s just something about it.”

Karen Gleason believes that something is “inner peace.” As vice president of cancer services for Northwell Health, she sees firsthand the stress, both physical and mental, that cancer patients experience. “This is a difficult time in their lives,” she said, “and having the ability to go to a garden setting gives them the ability to stop and transform by looking at the beautiful colors, sights and scents. It’s a peaceful and timeless environment for them to go for awhile.”

STAYING IN THE PINK

Vera Capogna heads out to the side of her house and admires the walkway that was completed just in time for her daughter’s backyard engagement party in September. The pink-tinged pavers frame a long, narrow border she calls her “breast cancer garden” and coordinate with the pink phlox, mums, roses and Invincible Spirit hydrangeas she planted there, along with her favorite Hot Lips turtlehead flowers. On the soil to their right sits a pink ribbon mosaic steppingstone that Capogna, an artist who also runs an accounting business with her husband, crafted from pink tiles.

When she planted the area nearly 15 years ago, she was recovering from a stressful year building up a new income tax business, illustrating four books with “crazy” deadlines, raising three children, moving her family of five and their dog in with her mother for five months while their house underwent an extensive renovation — and receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. She subsequently had two surgeries and chemotherapy.

“Many people gave me pink ribbon pins that year, and the summer I returned to the house I just kept buying pink annuals, and soon started buying pink perennials,” said Capogna, 59, who lives in Sayville with her husband, Robert, and their two grown sons. “It was just in my head, and I didn’t want to forget that even though I was past it, other people were still struggling, so I decided to do everything pink.”

“You never finish recovering from breast cancer,” Capogna said. “I always have in the back of my head what my surgeon said to me, that stress caused this. The only other risk factor I had [for cancer] was that I didn’t exercise, so I started walking and running at that time, and continued vegetable gardening, turning the dirt and weeding, ” she said. Capogna said she finds gardening, birding and being out in nature, away from technology, stress-relieving.

Capogna, who was advised against using her left arm after she had lymph nodes removed, relies on her husband and sons to do the heavy lifting and digging, but the special touches are all hers. The garden is adorned with pink buckets and watering cans, and she painted a birdhouse with a chickadee on it “and of course, it’s pink,” she said. “Everything I do is pink as a reminder for me not to forget what other people are going through and to say a prayer for them.”

LIFETIME OF GARDENING

Growing up in Commack in the 1970s, Abby Lawitz Melendez was surrounded by flowers of every color. Her family owned Garden Fair, a nursery in Commack, and she would often spend time there among the plants. “Gardening was always normal to me,” she said, adding that she still likes to “play in the dirt.”

Melendez, now 59 and retired, grew up to become a special-education teacher, working in New York City for 30 years. One school year, in particular, stands out in her memory, she said. “I started getting sick in September of ’97, which is not unusual for someone teaching elementary school, but I was sick a lot that whole school year with sinus infections and respiratory problems.”

After receiving a diagnosis of allergy-induced asthma, Melendez made an appointment with an allergist. On the day of her visit, she sat on the exam table waiting for the doctor to enter. “When he walked in and saw me,” she recalled, “the first thing he said was, ‘the right lobe of your thyroid is enlarged.’ ”

Not necessarily alarmed, Melendez saw an endocrinologist, who ran blood work that turned out to be normal. As a precaution, the doctor ordered a scan that involved radioactive iodine, and the results indicated something was not right. A fine-needle biopsy came next, and the results were benign as well, but “suspicious cellular changes” were found. Surgery was recommended, but only because her trachea was being impinged. It wasn’t until after that surgery that Melendez heard the diagnosis of cancer for the first time.

“It was a shock,” she recalled. “Cancer doesn’t happen to you, it happens to everyone else,” she said, explaining how incredulous she was at the time. “I was working full-time and had three young children, and I was worried about my life and that I wouldn’t be there for my kids and my husband.” Sensing her panic, her surgeon recommended she join an online support group. So Melendez searched the internet and found a group called the Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association, called ThyCa, for short.

Although she joined the group, Melendez said it was difficult to keep her spirits up. Aside from being treated for cancer and undergoing a second surgery, she experienced a severe hormone imbalance after her thyroid was removed. She felt sluggish and fatigued. “It was very easy to stay in the house and be depressed at that time,” she said.

ThyCa, however, wasn’t her only support group. Melendez had marigolds, black-eyed Susans, butterfly bushes, lilies, lilacs and crape myrtles. “Gardening got me outside,” she said. “Just being in the fresh air sort of healed me and made me thankful. It was calming just to plant something and watch it bud. There’s something healing about watching something come to life because it reminds you that life goes on,” she said. “I even like weeding. It even felt good to be disappointed that the beetles ate all my plants.”

Soon after her diagnosis, Melendez stopped spraying the trees in her Baldwin yard with chemicals. “It made me more aware that pesticides are not good. I’d never thought about it [that using pesticides might not be good], but I don’t know why I got cancer.”

In 2009, her husband Miguel, now 62, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The couple, thankful for their own positive outcomes, set out to help others navigate similar frightening ordeals. They started facilitating the ThyCa support group, which meets on the second Sunday of every month at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. Three years ago, in hopes of giving members yet another place to connect, they started the ThyCa Facebook group, which has 126 members, mostly from Long Island.

In March, the couple received the American Cancer Society’s Heart and Soul award for volunteerism in Nassau County, and in August, they were honored with the St. George National Award for Volunteerism for the Northeast region.

Melendez’s other support group, her garden, provides its own rewards. “I hear the birds, see the squirrels, catch the slugs and see the neighborhood dogs put their snouts under the fence,” she said. “It’s very calming to me, it brings me peace and takes my mind off things.”

In navigating cancer, it’s not only patients who need a peaceful distraction. Noting that every diagnosis also takes a toll on doctors, nurses and other staff members at the Monter Cancer Center in New Hyde Park, Northwell’s Gleason partnered with the health system’s chaplain, Melinda Nasti, in August to provide on-site respite for them.

“Our staff is taking care of very critically ill people, so I wanted to support them while they support our patients,” she said. When she discussed this with Nasti, the chaplain suggested creating a small garden. “The staff came and planted for us, and we also put in benches,” Gleason said, “because we want them to have a nice, quiet place to sit in the garden and reflect personally for themselves or for a patient. It’s enormously important” for those affected by illness to have a place that feels safe and is serene.

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