One Gwent woman found solace on her allotment as she fought the hardest battle of her life. JEN MILLS reports.
WHEN Caroline Duchet was diagnosed with breast cancer aged just 43, she felt as if her fears had been realised.
After losing her mother to cancer when she was still young, Mrs Duchet had believed the same would repeat across the generations and she would not live to see 50.
But 20 years on from that initial diagnosis, she counts herself lucky to be in remission and says that gardening helped her to find tranquillity during difficult times.
Now she would like others to realise the benefits a green fingered life can bring, whatever stresses or strains they might be facing.
The retreat to the potting shed or the flowerbed is renowned as a way of escaping day-to-day stress, and Mrs Duchet, 63, from Bulwark in Chepstow, says that many people in the gardening club she attends find similar relief in working the soil and watching something grow to fruition.
“All the stresses and strains fall away. If you talk to anyone who has an allotment here, it’s a place to just come and be quiet, where you don’t have to think about anything you don’t want to think about. It’s very peaceful and tranquil; you’re digging or planting or you’re weeding and you can hear the birds in the trees or the squirrels. It gives you time to reflect and not feel under pressure. Of course, when you garden, you have the emotional bonus of creating something and seeing something grow, over a period of months or weeks or years. If you’re that way inclined, that’s a tremendously satisfying thing to experience.”
“About 20 years ago I realised I had a lump. Because my mother had died of cancer, I was down at the doctor within 48 hours and I was referred to a specialist. I had a mammogram, which didn’t confirm things either way so I went into the Royal Gwent Hospital, had the lump removed and was told, ‘Yes, was we took out was a cancer.” I went back into hospital to have some more of my breast removed. I had the lymph glands removed as well to see if it had spread. I actually saw the surgeon for the results on December 23; the best Christmas present I’ve ever had was to be told that it hadn’t spread.”
After that Mrs Duchet had radiotherapy and was on Tamoxifen, which she stayed on for ten years to prevent any further cancers developing.
She said: “Although my mother’s cancer was a different cancer, pancreatic, because she had died when she was 52, I never expected to see 50. Without being morbid or depressing, I wasn’t going around saying ‘I’m going to die’ to everybody’, but it was just something there in the back of my mind and the effect of that for me was to feel I couldn’t waste a second of my time.
“The surgeon told me it had been developing for 5 years but in comparison to some women obviously that was fairly slow growing. I could look back at my life five years before and I knew I was probably too busy trying to be the perfect mother, the perfect wife. My husband and I were running our own business, so probably trying to be the perfect businesswoman as well. I think I was forgetting to create time for myself, and that’s where the gardening came in. I really started doing it for leisure whereas before it had been ‘Oh, I have got to keep this garden tidy’. It was my husband who said, ‘Look, why don’t you put your name down for an allotment?’”
“Fortunately I have never been terminally ill but I’m aware that people who are can set themselves, not exactly goals, but events that they hope they will live to see and of course if you’re growing something you think, ‘Maybe I will be able to see this bush flowering or maybe I will see this tree produce fruit. That in itself can be very positive for people in that kind of situation.”
She found this was true for herself, planting different seeds and hoping to be able to see flowers dotting the garden with colour or to sample vegetables from her own plot: “After I finished my radiotherapy treatment, I didn’t think I’d be around for very long. I planted some conifer trees, thinking if we had them germinate maybe I might be around to see them grow - not to maturity but to see one or two trees that have grown from seed. They represent something to me that I have grown them hoping I might be around to see them, and they are still there. One has even grown a bit too big and I’m in the process of taking cuttings for if I need to move it.”
Although, aside from a repetitive strain injury, Mrs Duchet counts herself lucky to fit and healthy she said: “Even after you have been given the all clear, you accept that it could happen again. Even after all this time I don’t take it for granted that I’ll necessarily still be here in 18 months time.
Her illness, which she was given when her daughter had just started her first year of A Levels, is a reminder that life can be unpredictable. “At that point, they counted people being alive five years after treatment as a success, which when you’re 43 and people are saying they'll regard it a success if you live beyond 48... It mean, it was a shock. To get to the point at which you could tell somebody without bursting into tears was not easy.”
With an allotment bursting with produce, Mrs Duchet has plenty of opportunity to find joy in seeing her plants grow, with some of the many species she tends including onions, tomatoes, French beans, black eyed Susan, gladioli, lettuce, asparagus, strawberries and sunflowers. “It’s all that ‘back to nature’ stuff”, she said. “Modern life has deprived us of the capacity to do this kind of things, maybe. It fulfils that need to be creative.”
She helps run Chepstow Gardening Club, which sells gardening supplies and provides a network for gardening enthusiasts. For information on how to join email email@example.com.