Mother Nature may be good medicine for cancer patients

January 18, 2007

ANN ARBOR—Gardening, bird-watching or even a backyard romp with Rover may be just the remedy needed to restore the mental energy of people faced with a life-threatening illness such as cancer, says Bernadine Cimprich of the University of Michigan’s School of Nursing.

“Fighting cancer requires a large amount of mental energy. Many patients encounter excessive fatigue as they cope with the treatment and other symptoms,” says Cimprich, assistant professor of nursing at U-M. “With this fatigue often comes difficulty thinking clearly, taking care of oneself and relating effectively to others. Interactions with the natural environment may represent a simple, easily accessible way to help restore this mental energy at a time when seriously ill people need it most.”

Based on results from her earlier research, Cimprich recently received a five-year research award from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Nursing Research to take a closer look at the potential benefits of nature’s effect on cancer patients. Her earlier study involving women treated for localized breast cancer found that women who were randomly assigned to participate in activities that involved nature improved their “attentional capacity”?the ability to think clearly, keep track, set goals, start a task and follow it through. While they chose their own activities, each participant in the intervention group followed a “prescription” of 20- to 30- minute nature-based activities three times a week.

Cimprich’s new study will involve 200 women with newly diagnosed Stage I or II breast cancer who will be asked to follow a specific “prescription” of nature activities. These activities could include what Cimprich calls “moving through nature” by biking or strolling as well as gardening, tending plants indoors or out, or through observing birds in their habitats or a sunrise or sunset. “Some people have to make an effort to get to nature,” Cimprich says, “because so much of nature is disappearing.”

But, Cimprich says, some sort of nature is available to almost everyone even if it’s taking snapshots of locations, flora and fauna or observing birds at a feeder. Parks, botanical gardens and conservatories (especially in winter) provide opportunity to “get connected” with the environment. Even a terrarium or rock garden indoors could do the trick, according to Cimprich. Those participating in her latest study will receive a membership to U-M’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens where they can commune year-round on the grounds or in the conservatory.

“I am very pleased that the Botanical Gardens can contribute to this important research,” said James Teeri, director of the Gardens. “The Botanical Gardens offers a unique opportunity for research on the potentially restorative effects for cancer patients through contact with plants, gardens and nature. Matthaei continues to serve as an interdisciplinary center within the University where scientists collaborate on projects related to better understanding the reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world.”

“Interacting with nature gives you time to reflect,” Cimprich says. “It’s really mental housekeeping, a chance to think about what’s important in life.

“We have to take care of our capacity for directed attention just like we take care of our muscles or our skin or teeth.”

National Institute of Nursing ResearchBotanical GardensJames Teeri