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Green therapy: Cancer survivor finds solace in yard work

by on July 26, 2013 11:00 AM

“Do what you love and love what you do.”

Bev Painter, 73, of Indiana, has taken that popular motto as her own.

And just what does Painter do? She does yard work. Tedious and meticulous yard work, which in turn has created a space for the community to see and find inspiration in.

The work, which Painter calls “yard therapy,” began at age 72 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“On Oct. 31, 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said. “To say the least, I was absolutely, positively, unequivocally devastated because I had never been sick a day in my life.”

Painter went through what she calls an “unbelievable” series of tests before her lumpectomy, a time that she considered to be frightening, a time that she felt alone. One day, she said, she realized that the breast cancer was not something that was going to bring her down.

After her lumpectomy and a series of 36 radiology treatments, Painter said she “really put together what she could do with this diagnosis.” What she really could do, she decided, was help people.

“So many people that are diagnosed with any type of a disease of a serious nature seem to shut down,” she said.

At a point in her life when many people choose to ask, “Why me?” Painter decided to use her affliction as a way to start something new.

Each year, in the first week of March, Painter begins work on her Oak Street yard, which is now surrounded by flowers, trees and even well-groomed weeds. She spends 21 hours per week working on the garden, which she has sectioned off for different days of the week.

Weekly, she goes out with a pair of scissors and hand-trims all of the edges of her yard, making sure each edge is perfect. This edging, she said, “is the icing on the cake.”

Often, people stop to talk to her and she will share her story and listen to theirs, as they sit on the white chairs under a tree in the yard or at the table on her front porch. Her story, Painter hopes, will be of some encouragement to others who are going through any kind of situation.

It isn’t just about having the perfect garden, though. The yard work does more for Painter — it helped keep her mind off of the stresses of having cancer when her disease was at its worst. Work like this, she said, “helps you forget about yourself.”

Though Painter acknowledges traditional forms of therapy that many patients turn to, she believes that “the real therapy is working with your hands.”

“I feel you have to pick up what is left in your life, you have to pick up what is left even though you have had this disease and you have this diagnosis and you have these fears and anxieties,” she said. “You have to put all of that together piece by piece to be an example of how you can help another person in your situation or a similar situation.”

Painter also finds encouragement from those who stop by while she’s working to say that they’ve grown some of their own flowers, or bordered their yard the way she has. Encouragement is one of the best things patients can have in their time of need, she said.

“Even at age 73, never being sick a day in your life, being diagnosed with breast cancer, you can still have a worthwhile, wonderful life. You don’t have to stay inside pitying yourself.”

Keeping your brain active, keeping your mind off the things that are troubling, are the most important messages that Painter thinks she has to offer.

“Don’t ever stop, because once you’ve stopped, I would think it would be incredibly hard to ever get back on your feet again.”

Just as a stone in her garden reads: “Life’s too short to be anything but happy.”

Ellen Matis is the digital media coordinator and a staff writer at The Indiana Gazette. She is the person behind the Gazette's social media. A 2012 graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Ellen has a degree in journalism and public relations. Follow her on Twitter, @EllenMatis, or email her at
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