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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

The Benefits of Nature

Imagine yourself in your favorite outdoor space. Maybe you feel and hear the waves of a beach lapping against your feet; or you hear the quietness, apart from a few birds; on a secluded mountain hike; or maybe you are picturing the warm colors of a desert sunset. Take a breath. You likely feel a little calmer already. Nature is calming and healing- most of us know that intuitively, and recently more research is backing that up. Even if you can't get away into the remote wilderness, spending time outdoors in your backyard, a local park, or even looking at images of nature can provide some benefit. In the articles below, read how nature is being used to improve cancer survivors moods, cope with diagnoses, and how the natural world has contributed to medical treatments.

Nature, particularly images of trees can increase calmness and positive emotions. The Tree of Life Fulfillment workshop at UCLA's cancer center, uses these images and combines them with art and mindfulness to help patients cope with cancer diagnoses. "Taking patients out into nature, however, isn’t always an option, especially for those who have trouble leaving their homes due to treatment recovery or are in the hospital. With the support of the team from the Simms/Mann Center, which is part of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, [Sydney] Siegel, [a social work intern,] found a way to bring the experience of nature to patients: through the use of guided imagery, meditation and art."

Siegel leads participants to "envision themselves as a tree located in their own very safe and comforting place in nature.While this is happening, they are incorporating deep breathing exercises that simulate the tree — taking deep breaths and exhaling, similar to the way a tree absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen."

"'I felt the dense wood’s strength and stability — just what I needed to counter the vulnerability my cancer has imposed on me,' Carol Mason said of the workshop. 'I also sensed a timelessness in the tree’s slow-moving life force that calmed my anxiety about my future.'” Read More.

Sandy Knapp is a botanist who works for the British Natural History Museum. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her connection to the world of plants that she studies gave here a better appreciation for the medications and treatments that saved her. The main compound of Taxol was originally derived from Pacific yew trees and epirubicin, another chemotherapy compound was originally isolated from a soil bacteria Streptomyces.

"I've always known that biodiversity provides us with drugs for combatting conditions like cancer, but being on the receiving end of this treatment made me think about it in a new way.

"It is not just the diversity of large exciting animals like those I saw in Africa and that set me up mentally for my journey through treatment that's important. It's also those elements of biodiversity that can be overlooked: plants and even tinier creatures like bacteria. Nature is the best chemist of all, and although we can invent compounds, those that have stood the test of millions of years of evolution are often the most efficacious. Read More.

In addition to the mental and emotional benefits of spending time in nature, researchers in Korea have found that spending just a few hours in a forest can increase natural killer cells, which are protective against cancer. "Natural killer (NK) cells are immune cells in the human body well-known for their ability to identify and reduce the size of cancerous tumors. NK cells and their associated “cytotoxic entourage” of perforin and granzyme enzymes, remained elevated in the bloodstream greater than 30 days after this single forest therapy exposure."

"In 2015, a Korean study published a small trial of 11 women with stage 1-3 breast cancer. This was a two-week forest therapy immersion program. ... This clinical trial showed impressive results. Serum NK cells were increased by 39% at the two-week mark and remained elevated 13% above the baseline one week upon returning home. ... These findings support forest therapy’s substantial upregulation in tumor-fighting capacity of the immune system in women coping with breast cancer. While this subject pool was very small and lacked a control group, the results are promising as an adjunctive nature-based therapy, warranting more research." Read More.

So, nature is good for our health, but why? "The two most common theories that explain this phenomenon are the psychoevolutionary theory and the attention restoration theory. Psychoevolutionary theory focuses on the human ability to have 'positive built-in reactions to natural environments.' Our positive connection to nature including low stress and high spirits has evolved innately as part of our species development over millennia. This theory accounts for nature’s capacity for improving our well-being but doesn’t delve into the cognitive impact of nature on our brain. For this aspect, we turn to attention restoration theory.

"Attention restoration theory looks at the two main types of attention that humans employ: directed and undirected attention. Directed attention requires us to focus on a specific task and block any distractions that may interfere with it. For instance, when we are working on a math problem, or engrossed in reading a literary passage or in assembling or repairing an intricate mechanical object, our brains are totally dedicated to the task at hand, requiring our direct undivided attention. After we complete the task we often feel mentally fatigued or drained. Conversely, when we are outdoors, we may enjoy observing patterns or a sunset, clouds, flowers, leaves or a beautiful meadow, which call on our undirected attention. Using our senses to touch, see or smell in natural settings doesn’t require a task-specific, problem-solving approach. Instead we can enjoy our experience in nature and be rejuvenated by taking in the sights and sounds at a relaxed pace. Undirected attention is easy to summon and maintain and leads to reduced stress and anxiety. Read More.

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