Wellbeing and wildlife: how nature helps me feel better

In this guest blog post, Shine member Hazel writes about how getting outside helped her to cope with treatment for cervical cancer.


It was 2pm. I’d gotten out of bed at around midday, but I hadn’t bothered to get dressed yet or even brush my teeth. The cloudless blue sky and warming sunlight beckoned me to leave the house, but they were hidden behind my tightly shut window blinds. I sighed, disappointed in myself for not making the most of the glorious weather, and wrote it off as ‘one of those days’.

As the daylight faded I told myself tomorrow would be different. I set my alarm, laid out my clothes and put my binoculars and camera into my backpack. Tomorrow I would go out for a walk.

Chemo

Hazel on the chemo ward

After being diagnosed with cervical cancer in November I underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, twenty-five fractions of pelvic radiotherapy and three doses of brachytherapy (internal radiotherapy). After finishing treatment in January the reality of the whole experience sunk in and early-onset menopause began. Anxiety, hot flushes and night sweats, coupled with aches in my pelvis, often make it challenging to get a good night’s sleep. These conditions give me go-to excuses for not leaving the house, especially on gloomy, cold days, despite knowing that getting out of the house makes me feel so much happier. Listening to birdsong, looking for wildflowers and immersing myself in nature are the things that help me forget about cancer and just enjoy being alive.

The next morning, true to my intentions, I headed out to one of my favourite local nature reserves. It was a beautiful day again. I had another chance to get out and feel better. I walked under a canopy of huge beech trees with their smooth grey trunks flanked by stocky holly trees, listening out for birdsong as I went. Among the various tweets and chirps cascading around the woodland my attention was caught by a series of loud, high pitched ‘pip-pip’ calls. Over the past few years I’ve made an effort to learn the songs and calls of birds (you don’t need to know which bird is singing to appreciate the wonderful sound though, of course!). I recognised the ‘pips’ as being the call of a nuthatch: a beautiful little bird with blue-grey feathers on their backs, pale peach plumage on their bellies and a striking black stripe running across their eye. I looked up into the trees, scanning the branches in the direction of the sound. I soon spotted not one but two nuthatches, a male and a female, using their beaks to prise bark off a silver birch tree in which they were busily hopping from branch to branch. I stood perfectly still, trying not to disturb them.

I get so much joy from watching wild animals going about their daily lives, gaining insight into their behaviour. There’s no space for anxiety about the recurrence of cancer or worrying about the future in those moments because my full concentration is given to the bird, butterfly or other natural wonder that I am in the presence of. After a few minutes one of the nuthatches flew over to a tree, clinging to the bark with its powerfully clawed little feet. It cautiously paused to look at me before it began stuffing the bark it had collected into an old woodpecker-made hole in the tree’s trunk. They were building a nest! I’d passed that hole-laden tree many times and wondered what creatures might make use of it; now I was witnessing something I had never seen before and it felt like such a privilege. It brought a smile to my face which lasted the rest of that day, and returns now as I recall the details of the encounter to write about it. This is the kind of moment I need to remind myself of when I am struggling for the motivation to get out of bed!

More recently, after the familiar difficulty of getting an appointment at my GP surgery, a sympathetic doctor prescribed me an HRT drug. I could have hugged him, I was so overjoyed at the thought of getting some undisturbed, hot-flush-free sleep. Unfortunately, upon consulting every pharmacist in the locality, I found the drug was unavailable with no timescale for when it might be back on the shelves. In my despair I sat and cried in my car.

I knew I didn’t want to be out walking on reserves looking and feeling as I did, so I sought solace among the plants and wildlife at home in the garden. Gazing into the pond I watched smooth newts: males with their striking, spotted breeding season colouration, and sand-coloured females. Their tails quivered, propelling them to the surface. They paused, suspended just long enough to take a gulp of air before descending back to the bottom of the pond, leaving a trail of tiny bubbles. There were also dragonfly nymphs, formidable predators in this tiny underwater world, sitting motionless and deadly. Some of our largest dragonflies spend up to four years in this form before crawling up the stems of plants and emerging as the beautiful adult winged insects (which live for a maximum of only seven months). With very little effort, my sadness and frustration had diminished, replaced by the childlike wonderment of watching newts and dragonfly nymphs.

At sea

Hazel working at sea as a wildlife guide in 2017,
specialising in whales, dolphins, porpoises and seabirds

Of course we are all entitled to days when we just don’t feel like going out, getting dressed or getting out of bed, and there is no shame in that. Our bodies need rest and time to heal. Comfy clothes, chocolate and binge-watching your favourite TV series can be hugely therapeutic! For me though, there’s nothing like getting outside, even if just for half an hour, to seek out wildlife encounters and marvel at nature. In those magical moments my cancer might as well not exist; I don’t give it a thought because I am consumed in marvelling at the beauty of the natural world – and I feel so much better for it.