The University Record, November 26, 1996

Mother Nature: Good medicine for cancer patients?

By Kristen Finn
Health System Public Relations


A regular dose of Mother Nature in the form of 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, according to a researcher in the 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 Bernadine Cimprich, assistant professor of nursing. "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," she says.

Based on promising results from her earlier research on women with breast cancer, 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.

In the earlier study, which involved 32 women treated for localized breast cancer, she found that those 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 of the women in the intervention group signed a contract to follow a "prescription" of 20- to 30-minute nature-based activities three times a week.

There were other benefits as well. "The women who had regular interactions with nature, whether it was gardening, walking or just sitting in a park, were also more likely to start new projects," Cimprich says. "More of them got involved with activities like volunteering or learning new skills. One women, for example, began taking violin lessons. The employed women also returned to full-time work sooner than those in the control group."

As part of the new study, which will involve 200 women with newly diagnosed Stage I or II breast cancer, participants in the intervention group will be asked to follow a specific "prescription" of nature activities. They also will receive a membership to the University's Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

Max Wicha, director of the Comprehensive Care Center, believes that Cimprich's work has important long-term implications for cancer patients' quality of life. "In pioneering research, she has come up with some very important observations on how breast cancer patients' lives can be changed for the better through interactions with the natural environment," he says. "Her research has the added benefit of potentially wider application to patients with other types of cancer. Now that we have early results that clearly demonstrate its value, we will be encouraging our patients to have more contact with the natural world."

Even healthy people may benefit from getting to know Mother Nature better, Cimprich feels. "We have to take care of our capacity for directed attention just like we take care of our muscles or our skin or our teeth."