To live after cancer – nature therapy

28 June 2020 | By Sara Ivarsson

Taking time alone in nature can be a great way to restore your capacity. Research shows that in times of great need for mental rest, it's helpful to find an environment that doesn’t place any demands or requires any action. Get away from movement, busyness and social interaction – and just be in nature.

This is the last blog post in a series on living with cancer that I have been writing this year. The introduction to these blog posts, and to me, can be found in the first one; To live with, after and next to cancer.

Time in nature as rehabilitation

“Whenever possible, I think every cancer patient needs to get outside during treatment. Fresh air works wonders for the mental state of mind as well as feeling more alive in every other aspect.”
Rex Jones, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2017 and user of War On Cancer

The therapeutic quality of nature is real. There are numerous practices and research promoting nature as therapy, like the Japanese Shirin-yoku, forest bathing, read in Swedish about getting in contact with nature in the blog post Kom i kontakt med naturen by Bianca Barck, that has become popular lately. And also, Sweden is a leading country when it comes to research about nature-based therapy.

Spending time in nature is good for everyone, enhancing physical and mental wellbeing as well as sparking creativity. But I think it is especially essential for those who experience a situation too overwhelming to deal with.

Both when living next to and after cancer, I’ve been seeking comfort in nature, not knowing how to be with people at all times. Sometimes trees, flowers, the green, the brown, the sound of wind rustling through the leaves, was all I could, and had energy to, be with. It calmed me down. I didn’t want to talk more about my boyfriend and cancer. And I didn’t know how to talk about other random things, since everything seemed irrelevant when his life was first being threatened, and later ended.

I sometimes went to the forest, but mostly I walked around in the park in Alnarp close to where I live. That park helped me immensely during the darkest times, and it is still the place for me those days when life is too hard to take.

Alnarp is the seat of The Swedish University of Agriculture Science (SLU). In 2002 a Rehabilitation Garden was formed in the eastern part of the park and campus area. It’s closed off to the public and research is being made regarding nature-based care and rehabilitation interventions. Among other things, they research how to work with a green environment to help people with different diagnoses regain health and move closer to work and a better functioning life. The garden has become an international leader in nature-based therapy for stress-related mental illness like burnout, fatigue, and depression. Research have also been made in areas such as stroke and dementia.

As I had experienced the healing qualities of nature as I spent time in the public areas of the park, I was excited to go to a field trip to the Rehabilitation Garden last year on one of the few occasions they have public tours in the garden.

I know that life isn’t always an easy, comfortable straight line, “a walk in the park”. But I never imagined it to be such a mess. But when one go on an actual walk in the park, one might notice that between the messy knots and twists of sorrow, tiredness, anxiety, and anger, there are hints of a lovely blue sky.

An undemanding environment

In previous posts about living with, next to, and after cancer there has been emphasis on the importance of community and social support following a cancer diagnosis. That is still vital, but there can also be moments when the bare thought of other people is exhausting.

One of the most interesting things I learned on the field trip was a model of needs for a restorative environment after you been through crisis or severe stress. The model is created by Patrik Grahn, professor in Landscape architecture and environmental psychology at SLU.

Depending on our mental strength and energy at any given moment we need different environmental experiences and social interaction. When we are in a very bad state with low mental energy and strength, what we humans feel most comfortable with is simple things as rocks, water, trees, a single flower. When psychological capacity increases, we can take in more complex nature and animals. Last come people. It takes effort to engage and interact with other human beings. Effort that we at some times can’t muster up energy for.

If you as a patient or a loved one is struggling with your current situation; are suffering from cancer related fatigue; or are grieving after losing a loved one; you might have noticed that inability to think, function, and interact with others like you used to before. Taking time alone in nature can be a great way to restore emotional and physiological capacity.

Results from the studies made in Alnarp show that, in times of great need for mental rest, it is good to find an environment that doesn’t place any demands on us or requires an action from us. Nature environments offers that non-achieving quality that can be hard to find in everyday life that is filled with movement, busyness, and social interaction. A tree doesn’t need anything from you, neither does a pond or flowers.

If possible, make habit of going to a peaceful place that offers the feeling of retreat, safeness and being one with nature. A place where you can just be. Where you don’t need to explain, adjust, or achieve. This promotes automatic relaxation of the nervous system and restoration of cognitive resources.

Take in natures therapeutic qualities

  • Find wild, free growing nature that gives you a sense of peace, refuge, solitude.
  • Go for a walk. Sit. Lie down. Look at the surroundings. Close your eyes. Listen to the sounds. There is no right way to experience nature, do what feels best for you. All is good.
  • The feeling of awe is restoring. Go places that are beautiful. Let yourself be swept away by the wonder of nature – big views and small details, like the softness of a flower petal.
  • Experience with all your senses. Feel, listen, see, smell, and taste if there is an opportunity.
  • Sometimes finding symbols and metaphors in nature’s process helps you to put words on feelings and thoughts in your own life situation.
  • Tend to something. When we gain more mental energy and strength, nature or garden-based activities like planting seeds, re-potting plants, preparing the grounds, cutting flowers, and picking berries, fruits and vegetables, are good activities for rehabilitation.
  • Most important – let your experience be undemanding. You don’t have to do ANYTHING. Just be in nature.

The Rehabilitation Garden works closely to Försäkringskassan och Arbetsförmedlingen in Sweden. The studies and work have resulted in NUR (Naturunderstödd rehabilitering) in several areas in the country. You might ask your physician if you are qualified for that.

In near future the Rehabilitation Garden have some exciting research on the way. Coming up is a preparatory study on rehabilitation for persons living with chronic cancer. They will look at finding new rehabilitation programs for people having gone through cancer treatment. The researchers want to find out if spending time in the Rehabilitation Garden can give the patients a faster way back to work, and also a method to cope with the psychological distress associated with cancer.

If you are in a place where you are ok with guidance:

Audio and videos you can do in nature

45 min

Meditate with

En guidad mindfulnessmeditation som du utför ute i naturen, gärna barfota, leg. psykologen Mona Drar är din guide.

3 min

Meditate with

Guidas ner i fötternas förnimmelser och rörelser när du går. (Audio)

15 min

Meditate with

Väck kroppen i ett mjukt flöde för mer avslappnad andning och ökad rörlighet i kroppen. Rofylld meditation i rörelse.

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War on cancer

The physical challenge is huge for a cancer patient. The mental and emotional challenge is at least as great. War On Cancer is a social media-app, a social network and community, where everyone affected by cancer have the opportunity to share their cancer experience and get in contact with others who actually understand. War On Cancer's mission is to put focus on, and radically improve, the mental health of everyone affected by cancer. The first step is the digital social network that creates belonging and community in a time of isolation and uncertainty. You are reminded that you are never alone. We'll fight cancer together.

Learn more about War On Cancer and download their app at

Share your story, it will make a difference.

Read more about nature, therapy and rehabilitation

Sara Ivarsson

Sara är bland annat yogalärare och lymfmassör som tidigare främst inriktat sig mot yoga för idrottare. Numera arbetar hon dock mer terapeutisk och rehabiliterande med fokus på cancer – såväl patienter och överlevare som anhöriga.

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