Dawn’s Story



Hands in healing soil

“To garden is to believe in tomorrow.” ~ Audrey Hepburn

Most would agree that it’s been a tough couple of years. We have all had to deal with the dreaded c word… covid. Unfortunately for me, the big C also tested me.

A little over a year ago, at age 44, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. With no prior symptoms and no family history, I had 15 minutes notice of my emergency surgery to remove my fist size tumour and three feet of my colon, waking from the seven hour surgery with a colostomy bag.
32 lymph nodes were also removed and I had shadows on my liver and lungs. My spleen also suffered damage and my oncologist gave me a 30% chance of survival.

Life changed. In the blink of an eye. There was a fair few c words. Cancer. Colostomy bag which I named Neptune…. Like Uranus but slightly different! Chemotherapy. Colonoscopies, plural! Counselling. CT scans. Check ups. Challenges! Changes.

The year was filled with multiple surgeries and procedures. A year of uncertainty. I tried to stay upbeat and positive for the most part but I had some pretty dark moments physically and mentally too.

My one constant was my plot of land. My garden. It called me and urged me to believe in tomorrow.

‘Plant seeds of happiness, hope, success, and love; it will all come back to you in abundance. This is the law of nature’ ~ Steve Maraboli.

Getting your hands dirty in the garden can increase your serotonin levels – contact with soil and a specific soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers the release of serotonin in our brain according to research. Serotonin is a happy chemical, a natural anti-depressant and strengthens the immune system. Lack of serotonin in the brain causes depression. I knew it to be true.

During the six months of chemo where I became malnourished, I had good days and some not so good. On the good days I might have an hour or two of energy to sow some seeds in a small indoor plastic grow house. Even just going through my seed collection brought me joy and spurred me on to get through these trials and back on my plot. Back to the animals on my 32 acres and to my majestic tunnelhouse.

I couldn’t wait to once again grow most of what I ate and nourish my body, mind and soul.

I did seed swaps with strangers through the post. I would fold origami seed envelopes to pass the time. I read and educated myself on the parts of gardening that I wasn’t yet proficient at.

Being limited to not lifting over 5kg made being on my land impossible so I destocked the majority of my animals and had friends tend to the ones I kept. My support circle were incredible. Missing lambing and kidding season was tough, but I knew I’d be able to be back there, in my happy place, soon.

The chemo infusion I had every three weeks, followed by two weeks of taking 8 pills every 12 hours was gruelling. It gave me extreme cold sensitivity where breathing in cold air felt like shards of glass in my throat. Touching anything cold, even cutlery, would burn my skin. The soles of my feet burnt, blistered and peeled and my toe nails fell off. I didn’t go outside for the first ten days after a new cycle of chemo.
So even sowing seeds was tricky. But I did.
I believed in a glorious tomorrow where I would reap the benefits of those stolen minutes of productivity.

After chemotherapy was concluded I had a months rest before my bowel reconstruction surgery so I made the most of a week where I felt really good. I transplanted seedlings like my life depended on it. And it may well have.

My tunnelhouse has automatic watering so once my precious babies were in my raised beds, technology and Mother Nature took over while I rested and recuperated after another tough hospital stay. This time I was only allowed to lift 1.5kg for 8 weeks until my wounds with 77 staples healed.

But just as spring sprung, my energy improved, my body healed and my dark cloud lifted as I returned to my land full time and got stuck in. My tomato plants needed their laterals removed. Fence lines needed weed whacking. And more seeds to sow.

Prior to being sick I use to work 65 hour weeks in the city, a 45 minute drive away each direction. My time spent on my land was minimal and rushed.

My surgeon told me to get on and live the hell out of life. My priorities changed. I became part of my community. Actually part of many different communities. I sought out young people who needed support with colostomy bags and cancer diagnosis. I mentored gardeners and kids. I studied gut health like it was my new religion. I reaped the rewards of my soil toil. And fed my community. And I believed in tomorrow! I’m not just surviving. I’m thriving!

I feel pretty honoured to be featured in three different gardening publications – Nz gardener magazine, 2023 Gardening Dairy and the Grow More, Spend Less magazine.