The Healing Power of Being Outdoors for People With Cancer

From the Editor's Desk
July 23, 2020
Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO

Recently, I was struck by an image of a medical team in Barcelona, Spain, wheeling a patient in a hospital bed across the road to view the Mediterranean Sea. With 6 health care staff wearing masks and gowns at his side, this gentleman, who had spent nearly 2 months being treated for COVID-19 at the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, was taken from the intensive care unit (ICU) to a viewing platform where he could see the beach and begin his recovery. It was a moving and powerful reminder of the healing properties of the outdoors.

Being outdoors can serve to make us feel freer and more grounded. It makes us feel connected to nature and to a community that is bigger and more diverse than we normally encounter during our daily, and mostly indoor, activities.

At cancer centers, I can think of patients who were wheeled to rooftop gardens to get a break during lengthy hospitalizations. For people with cancer and survivors at home who may not have direct access to the outdoors, even a trip outside a building in a city can feel refreshing and alleviate stress. There may be some green spots in the city to visit. Or, one can simply take a moment to breathe more deeply and turn one’s attention to the sounds of honking cars or the colors and shapes of pedestrians. It’s amazing how much you will notice when you are not rushing, when you do not feel pressured to get somewhere or do something.

Summer is traditionally the season when people take time off from work, and families go on vacations or trips. People living with cancer understand that illness has a sinister way of interrupting personal plans, and this summer, we are all confronted with the restrictions imposed by the global pandemic. Treatment schedules have been modified to adapt to local and personal circumstances to keep people safe and prevent the virus from spreading, and most travel has been suspended or modified. But the outdoors is still there, and it’s usually not too far from your front door.

Being outdoors with a thoughtful presence can help us refuel and diminish our stress, bringing a deep sense of calm. I encourage you to look for parks in your area or nearby trails for hiking. For those who, like me, love the ocean, a trip to the coast can be restorative, even perfect if it includes a swim in ocean waters. When you do go outside, be sure to wear a mask in public spaces, keep 6 feet apart from other people, and check what the current regulations are for your location. Read more about how COVID-19 can impact people with cancer. Remember to also practice sun safety when outdoors. This includes wearing sunscreen, limiting your sun exposure, and talking with your doctor about how the sun may affect you if you’re receiving or have previously received cancer treatment.

These are extraordinarily stressful times, particularly for people with cancer and survivors. But being outdoors provides a natural escape that can feel comforting and help fill our emotional tanks when we are running near empty.

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