17 May 2022
By Tim Baker
In a highly competitive field, one of the more alarming side effects of hormone therapy is a gradual decline in cognitive function. This is not ideal for anyone but is particularly suboptimal for a career writer.
We’re a weird bunch, writers. Playing with words and trying to arrange them in a pleasing order that someone will give us money for. Like I said, weird. So please excuse me my incessant word play.
When I eventually settled on my cancer self-care mantra – Meditation, Exercise, Diet, Sleep – I soon realised there was one important component missing. Nature.
So, brace yourselves, I came up with – M.E.D.S + Nature = MENDS. That is, by adding regular immersion in the natural world into our cancer self-care we might not just keep despair at bay, but even find more joy, inspiration, meaning to life, to mend some of the trauma of our diagnoses.
A decline in cognitive powers is not something you obviously notice day to day, but is more of a slow creep, like the proverbial frog boiled in a pot of water. I look at my teenage son’s year 11 maths homework in the hope of helping but instead feel totally overwhelmed by its complexity. I can almost feel the mental cogs whirring but not engaging, an unsettling void where solutions used to arise.
I have forms to fill out for Centrelink that appear to me like the complex equations that swim through Russell’s Crowe’s character’s consciousness in the film, A Beautiful Mind. Some days I sit down to write and literally nothing comes. I’m accustomed to writer’s block and the terror of the blank page, but this is something else, just a vacuum of inspiration, an emptiness, like the writerly fuel tank is utterly empty, the reserve tank is exhausted and the mental engine splutters and stops, the fuel pipes clogged with muck from running on empty for too long.
A couple of years after my diagnosis, I was invited to the Ubud Writers’ Festival in Bali and had a grand total of four commitments for the week, an exceedingly sweet gig if ever there was one. But as I scrutinised the festival schedule and my own part in it, I was literally reduced to tears trying to fathom where I needed to be and when. My poor wife had to take charge of escorting me to the allotted venues on time, in the first chilling portent that the ramifications of cancer treatment were more far-reaching than either of us had imagined.
In response I’ve had to find new ways to write. I wake most mornings and scribble in my little Moleskin journal, just moving the pen across the page to see what comes. Some days it’s meaningless nonsense, other days I might manage the kernel of an idea that will inform the day’s writing. Occasionally, a remarkably coherent passage of prose magically materialises. In this way, I’ve managed to maintain some kind of writing practice.
I imagine a similar phenomenon besets many men in my position that may wreak havoc with their quality of life, even if they aren’t writers. So, allow me to share one of my favourite, newly-discovered, hormone therapy life hacks.
One blue day, my wife Kirst suggests a spot of “forest bathing”, a practice that originated in Japan, where it is known as shinrin-yoku – “shinrin” meaning forest, and “yoku” which literally means bath. If this sounds a lot like bushwalking to you, well, you’d be at least partly right. But the conscious practice of forest bathing involves a deliberate mindfulness, a deep listening and awareness of the sounds and smells, sights and textures of our environment. In her book Forest Bathing – How trees can help you find health and happiness, author Dr Qing Li explains: “This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”
Among the many benefits Li ascribes to forest bathing are reduced anxiety, stress and anger; improved sleep, increased energy, creativity, concentration and memory (yay!); a boost to the immune system, improved cardiovascular and metabolic health, reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol and psychologically calming effects; as well as enhancing the expression of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells. NK cells are thought to enhance the immune response to viral infections and even some tumours.
In a study led by Dr Li, 12 healthy male subjects aged from 37 to 55 were selected to experience a three day/two-night trip visiting three different forests. Almost all subjects (11 out of 12) showed about 50% higher NK activity after the trip, compared to levels recorded before the trip on a normal working day. That’s not to suggest walking in a forest is going to cure cancer, but it sure won’t hurt and may be a useful part of cancer self-care.
Kirst and I drive to the end of Currumbin Valley, past the little valley school where our kids went, past the Jacaranda tree Kirst planted on a friend’s property where she buried her mum’s ashes, and past the Eden Health Retreat where she worked when we first met. The Valley is heavy in memories good, bad and poignant for our family. It’s rare we venture out here since our kids finished primary school, and rarer still to reach the Mt Cougall National Park at the end of Currumbin Creek Road, which follows the creek’s meandering passage through the valley.
We park, then walk past the popular swimming holes and waterfalls and natural rockslide, as far as the established walking track will take us, then defy the rules a little by the following the creek itself, rock-hopping further into the valley, pausing to sit and absorb the sights, sounds and smells of our lush, sub-tropical rainforest surrounds. The happy burble of the creek itself, birdsong, unidentified hoots and creaks and rustling from the forest. I definitely feel calmer, clearer, lighter and, while I’ve come here for my mental health, it seems forest bathing’s benefits extend far beyond lifting your mood.
Two of the residential retreats I’ve experienced since my diagnosis, the Gawler Living Centre in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, and the Pomona Vipassana Meditation Centre inland from Noosa, are ringed by forests which guests are encouraged to wander through daily. In both cases they have offered a profound source of comfort as I’ve traversed my new and shifting reality. Part of it is just the simple power of walking, the most basic physical function humans were designed for. But there’s something else. An enhanced sense of my place in the great cycle of life, the cosmos even, surrounded as we are here in the pungent, messy processes of life and decay, growth and renewal, amid which my own struggles seem less dire, almost petty.
So, if you’re having a rough time of it may I toss in my recommendation for a bit of nature therapy – forest bathing, ocean swimming, bird watching, gardening, camping – whatever feeds your kink. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll take a little nap in this hollow log.
Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Nakadai, A., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Shimizu, T., Hirata, Y., Hirata, K., Suzuki, H., Miyazaki, Y., Kagawa, T., Koyama, Y., Ohira, T., Takayama, N., Krensky, A. M., & Kawada, T. (2007). Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International journal of immunopathology and pharmacology, 20(2 Suppl 2), 3–8. https://doi.org/10.1177/03946320070200S202
About the Author
Tim Baker is an award-winning author, journalist and storyteller specializing in surfing history and culture, working across a wide variety of media from books and magazines to film, video, and theatre. Some of his most notable books include “Occy”, a national bestseller and chosen by the Australia Council as one of “50 Books You can’t Put Down” in 2008, and “The Rip Curl Story” which documents the rise of the iconic Australian surf brand to mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. Tim is a former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines. He has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award.
Tim was diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but seven years on, at 57, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting The Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.