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Healing, Naturally: Can a Stint in the Wilderness Cure Cancer?

Cottaging is often touted as a remedy for stress. But can a stint in the wilderness cure cancer?

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Healing, Naturally: Can a Stint in the Wilderness Cure Cancer?Photo: Thinkstock

Sometime in the dead of winter, when the prospect of spring seems a lifetime away, cottagers engage in a desperate tradition: they pack. “You close up in October, spend a couple of months missing the place, and then, after New Year’s, you start planning to go back,” says Anne Hauck. “So you start packing your summer box. It’s what we’ve done for years.”

In the winter of 2010, Anne, whose cottage is on Georgian Bay, near Sans Souci, Ont., didn’t get a chance to pack her summer box. Soon after they closed up the cottage the previous fall, both Anne and her 24-year-old son, Andrew, were tested for cancer. Early in the new year, Anne got the first call: she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Before she could process her situation, the phone rang again. It was Andrew calling from Waterloo, Ont., where he was an undergrad at Wilfrid Laurier University. Andrew, fit and healthy, fresh off a five-week backpacking trip in Europe, had advanced-stage malignant melanoma.

Anne recalls the tortuous weeks that followed the diagnoses. Andrew underwent multiple surgeries, and Anne made the drastic decision to have a double mastectomy. Then Andrew moved back to the family’s home in Midland, Ont., and, for a month, commuted to Barrie to receive daily treatments of Interferon, an immune booster with potent flu-like side effects. “He had migraines and was throwing up,” says Anne. “Every time he came home from the chemo suite, he was a train wreck.”

It has never escaped Anne that “Sans Souci” translates to “carefree.” “We’d pick up the children from school on Fridays and make a beeline to the cottage. We’d land at the dock, and it was like, Aaahhhhh,” she says, closing her green eyes and exhaling deeply. The cove where the Haucks dock their boats is glass-calm and rimmed by mounds of granite, which rise into an open forest of white pine. “This place is a refuge. When you get here, you forget about everything else. On Sunday nights, we’d pack up to go back to work and get the kids back to school. Eventually, my job allowed me to be here most of the summer, and Dennis would commute up on Thursday nights.”

Anne, an organizational consultant, and her husband, Dennis, a real estate agent, purchased the small, weather-worn bungalow on Bowering Island in 1989. They made two additions to the original 1951 cedar-sided cottage and acquired a series of boats. The fleet has included, among others, the Pointless Punt, with its blunt-nosed, waterlogged hull; one with a four-horsepower kicker that Andrew and his younger sister, Stephanie, piloted as preschoolers; aluminum work boats; and a sleek fibreglass cruiser. Summers on Georgian Bay formed the epicentre of the family’s collective consciousness. “Everything we did together as a family, we did it here,” says Anne. “This is the place where we made all of our memories.”

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Oncologists advised Andrew against retreating to the cottage, which is a 45-minute boat and car ride from the nearest hospital, in Parry Sound, Ont. After the intense month-long “loading” stage, he was to undergo regular chemotherapy treatments for 38 weeks; a simple fever could turn life-threatening in his compromised state.

Yet, when the winds finally whisked the ice off Georgian Bay in early April, the family-Anne, Dennis, Andrew and Stephanie-went anyway. Andrew self-administered his Interferon injections three times a week, and Anne was well into her recovery. The Haucks’ life on Bowering Island was markedly different from usual that spring and summer-their collect­ive mood was more reserved; their favourite activities of boating, swimming and visiting, more subdued-but the tapestry of polished granite, wispy pine and blue-water horizons was intimately familiar.

“There was a sense the worst was over,” says Anne. “We got over the initial shock, and it became all about getting Andrew back on his feet.”

As far back as the 1890s, people remarked on the healing qualities of Georgian Bay. In his 1925 memoir, Cleveland newspaper publisher Charles Kennedy called the area the ideal vacation spot for the exhausted and nerve-racked. Another family, the Jamisons, camped in the area at about the same time. A doctor had prescribed clean air and sunshine to treat the eldest Jamison son’s weak lungs. The boy regained his health and grew up to stand six foot six; thus, their Sans Souci retreat became known as “Jumbo Island.” A more recent example was cottager John Sanderson, who suffered a heart attack in 1973. Sanderson went to his Sans Souci cottage and spent the better part of a month sitting on the dock, fishing and enjoying the view. His blood pressure dropped back to normal. “I felt like a new man,” Sanderson said.

Of course, “nature therapy” isn’t strictly a phenomenon of Georgian Bay. In 1897, the town of Gravenhurst became the site of the first tuber­culosis sanatorium in Canada because the clean air of rural Ontario was thought to be restorative for damaged lungs. The practice of “forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku, became popular in Japan when, in 1982, the Forest Agency recommended spending time in the woods as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Now a burgeoning field of academic study is quantifying evidence in support of the intangibles that cottagers have known all along: it’s good for our brains and bodies to turn our backs on the city and embrace the natural world. Forest bathing can help control stress and blood pressure, and even increase the body’s level of natural killer cells, which could help fight cancer.

These revelations have come none too soon. In 2008, the majority of the planet’s human inhabitants lived in metropolitan areas. The transition to a life of suburban traffic jams, big-box stores and the Internet has been overwhelmingly stressful on our front­al lobes, says David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. Dealing with Facebook, email, text messages, meetings, kids’ soccer practices and office politics-often simultaneously-essentially short-circuits cognitive function. “In nature we live more in the moment,” says Strayer, whose research recently demonstrated a 50 per cent increase in performance on a standardized creativity test in people who were immersed in natural environments, away from electronic devices. “You can focus on one idea or a related subset of ideas. You’re not going 20 different ways at the same time.”

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For Andrew, Georgian Bay served the role of what Strayer describes as a “mental sanctuary.” During his treatments in 2010, Andrew scaled back his summer routine of working construction and doing maintenance jobs for neighbours. Instead, he focused on enjoying the simple things: sitting on the deck and watching the sunset or helping his father work on the Remedy, the family’s new 32-foot cruising boat. “Being up here and just hanging out took my mind off of stuff,” says Andrew, now 29. “Back in town, you get into the cancer mode. But out here, no matter how crappy I felt, I could always drag myself from the bedroom and enjoy the view.”

“Nature-deficit disorder” is a catchphrase for a modern epidemic that’s grown in parallel with smartphones and social media. University of Michigan researcher Stephen Kaplan devised the concept of “attention restoration theory” as an antidote. Kaplan and his colleagues Marc Berman and John Jonides reported a 20 per cent increase in attention cap­acity when test subjects spent only an hour interacting with the outdoors. That’s because watching a sunset or walking along a forest trail doesn’t bog down the brain’s ability to function, explains Berman. “It captures your attention, but it’s not all-consuming,” he says. So when you go back to performing tasks that require “directed attention,” the brain is refreshed.
Similarly, Bernadine Cimprich, another University of Michigan researcher, demonstrated that “natural environment interventions” are adept at alleviating the “intense mental demands” placed on breast cancer patients. “They put them in a better condition to deal with treatment decisions, results and the disruption of normal life,” notes Cimprich. “Put people in the natural environment, and it does all the work.”

In the summer of 2010, while Andrew and Dennis looked forward to an August journey on Georgian Bay aboard the Remedy, Anne found solace kayaking amid the islands of nearby Massasauga Provincial Park. She spent several hours each morning paddling alone or with a friend. Paddling was ideal for regaining upper-body strength as she recovered from her mastectomies. More importantly, it was an escape from the realities of life. “Every time you go out, you see something different,” says Anne. “Nothing is ever the same.”

Trent University psychologist Lisa Nisbet argues that humans have always intuitively known that nature is healing. Almost without fail, her “nature connectedness test”-a self-directed survey of an individual’s relationship with nature-shows that a stronger connection boosts happiness and well-being.

Then there are the healing agents that occur in nature-many of which are the chemical foundations of modern cancer drugs and antibiotics. Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a botan­ist and medical biochemist based in Merrickville, Ont., points to five tree species common to Ontario’s cottage country with potent health benefits. They include Canada yew, an evergreen ground cover that gives off paclitaxel, a compound commonly used in breast cancer treatment; and birch trees, which emit betulinic acid, an anti-tumour agent used against malignant melanoma cells.

In a forest, all of these chemicals are being “liberated as aerosols and carried as hitchhikers on air particles,” says Beresford-Kroeger. They are in turn inhaled and absorbed by cottagers like Anne and Andrew. “We’re just beginning to grasp the huge effects these compounds have on the entire body.”

Psychologist David Strayer is still studying the “dose response function” for human interaction with nature-that is, the amount of time it takes to reap the benefits. Andrew thinks it’s less than zero. He felt the benefits before the dock was even in sight. He’s convinced it was the anticipation of getting to the cottage that got him through the first hellish month of treatment.

Concerns about Andrew’s health still hang over the family, yet he’s three years out of treatment, and regular tests have not identified any
new cancerous growths in his body. To look at him-young, barrel-chested and muscled after another summer working construction projects in
the fresh air of Sans Souci-you’d never guess that Andrew still lives with uncertainty.

“Georgian Bay is in my DNA,” he says. “It never goes away. You spend such little time up here because of the seasons, and the second I leave I’m waiting for the day I get to go back.”