Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Healing garden nurtures patients and staff

The healing garden at VCU Massey Cancer Center offers patients, family members and medical staff a chance to be around nature and to escape, if for only a little while, the stress and stimulation of a clinical environment.

"The garden was created to nourish and to inspire those who use it," says Becky Massey, a member of Massey's advisory board who came up with the idea of the garden and led the fundraising.

"The garden offers another aspect of healing that goes along with medicine but is different from medicine," says Massey. "These are the benefits of nature that come from plants and wonderful light and the trickling of water."

The restorative power of gardens is an ancient idea that still has therapeutic power. The Healing Garden is growing shade trees, perennials, evergreens, shrubs, vines and groundcovers. Water sculptures and a tranquil pool add to the atmosphere. Views from the garden are framed by bronze screens that borrow design elements such as birds and reeds from the nearby Egyptian Building, which was the original medical school built in 1845.

The garden has plants with anti-cancer properties, including the yew tree, which was the original source of the drug paclitaxel; Madagascar periwinkle, which is used to make the drug vinblastine; and autumn crocus, which makes a substance tested against leukemia.

But most of the plants come from everyday life, and the healing aspect is intended to come from this very familiarity.

"The focus is on life rather than illness," says Massey, adding that plants with strong scents are absent because some cancer treatments increase sensitivity to them.

For a sick patient, a stressed relative or a tired nurse, the garden will be a temporary "place of peace" in the midst of dealing with illness and pain," Ms. Massey said. "Perhaps it will mean the difference between a bad day and a hopeful day."

Editor’s note: The original version of this article was published in the June 27, 2006, edition of the NCI Cancer Bulletin.