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Natural Environment Brings Joy to Cancer Patients

The Mustard Tree Macmillan Cancer support centre is a hub of psychological and physiological support for cancer patients and their families. We caught up with Helen a physiotherapist, Annie a horticultural therapist and Ellie a counsellor to find out about the green prescribing courses they offer.

Access to green spaces and the impact they can have on mental and physical wellbeing became tremendously apparent after lockdown. Since then, the NHS has included Green Social Prescribing in its long term plan, and individual healthcare organisations have begun including it in patient care. So what is it? Green Social Prescribing is a form of therapy that healthcare professionals can prescribe which gets patients out into nature and interacting with others. The 2022 National Academy for Social Prescribing evidence report describes how nature may inspire positive emotions, and reduce negative thoughts; it may help to renew attention and decrease mental fatigue; or it may be that people have an innate ability to respond emotionally to nature.

Ellie, Annie, Helen and the rest of the Mustard Tree are fully supportive of this nature-based therapy and have set up several forms through Macmillan to help cancer patients come to terms with their diagnosis. We chatted to them about ‘into the blue’, ‘blooming well’, ‘trail therapy’ and wellbeing walks to find out what the impact is.

Into the blue is a cold-water wellbeing course in conjunction with South Devon Chill, and Mustard Tree counsellor Ellie is a chill coach and lifelong swimmer. She animatedly showed us several photos of patients from the course who were jumping through waves or floating on their backs, the sun in their eyes with wide grins taking up most of their faces. “What’s wonderful is that they still meet” she tells us, explaining that the pull of the cold water is such that many of the patients continue going with their group long after the course is over. “People are elated after their swims, but it also has a longer term impact where people feel better in body and mind” Ellie mused. The groups meet at Bigbury because the water is the cleanest there- Surfers Against Sewage has an interactive map on their website which shows where sewage is being dumped into the sea. A sad sight but useful app for those in need of their cold shock.

Similarly to into the blue, Annie’s Blooming well course gets patients together to experience nature, only this time through gardening. When we met her, she had just arrived from a Blooming Well session at Sheepstor and was carrying a large flowerpot decorated with hand-drawn butterflies and a name partly obscured by Annie’s hand. “A member of their group was too ill to come today” she said as a way of explanation “so we made this for her”. A common theme in these programmes is the sense of community and connection it creates with nature at the centre. Alongside the improved physical activity that comes with gardening, it also lifts mood, helps refocus attention when overwhelmed and decreases levels of stress and anxiety. Annie describes the sustainable activities they take part in and discuss on the course including encouraging wildlife, growing your own, planting for seasonal interest, wildflower planting and creative recycling. There is something infectious about Annie’s enthusiasm and we can’t help but feel touched when she tells us humbly that one patient had thanked her for bringing joy back to her life.

Physio Helen handed us several leaflets for courses designed to get patients moving in green space. There is a choice of Wellbeing Walks on the South West Coast path which features a weekly different local routes showcasing the stunning landscape, wildlife and heritage that’s on our doorsteps. Bikespace’s Trail Therapy is another such course which gets patients out into off-road cycling destinations in a small group, and a no-pressure 5K your way held on the last Saturday of every month. We discussed with Helen how common Allied Health Professional interventions, like encouraging active travel, promoting healthy eating, and supporting good mental health are part of the solution to climate change. She told us “Our aim in physiotherapy is to rehabilitate using a personalised treatment plan, encouraging self-management. We work on achieving optimum function and quality of life so that patients can return to loved hobbies and interests such as walking, cycling, swimming, gardening etc. Our work enables them to participate in the green social prescribing programmes.”

How wonderful to think that all these courses have the double benefit of supporting cancer patients through an extremely difficult time in their lives whilst also drawing attention to the beauty of the natural environment and how it needs to be protected. There is no doubt that Ellie, Annie and Helen get our Sustainability Seal of Approval!

For more information, contact the Mustard tree via their online form.

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