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Can Gardening Be Dangerous to a Mesothelioma Patient?

Gardener planting tomatoes

Along with the usual stresses of determining next steps after a mesothelioma diagnosis, you may wonder if you can still participate in your favorite hobbies and activities.

For most people, the answer is yes, but this may come with a warning.

If your favorite activity is gardening, you may need to take a few extra precautions while tending to your plants.

This should reduce the risk your hobby contributes to infections and other mesothelioma treatment complications.

Gardening is a popular and healing activity for many people. In fact, it’s so popular, many hospitals and cancer centers now have healing garden programs.

If you want to participate in a local healing garden or just putter in your own backyard, learning to do so safely after mesothelioma is an important first step.

Immune Function Matters

Neutrophils are part of the immune system. When their levels are abnormally low, this is referred to as neutropenia.

This form of decreased immunity is a sign you need to be extra careful to minimize your risk of cuts, scrapes and other potential sources of infection.

Some mesothelioma therapies cause neutropenia, and your doctor will track numbers of these cells with blood tests. Most health care providers do not consider neutrophil counts between 1,000 and 1,500 a cause for alarm.

However, when counts drop below 1,000, and especially when they drop below 500, risk for infection increases. At these levels, even normal bacteria from your mouth and digestive tract can cause serious infections.

All people in cancer treatment need to take steps to minimize risk of infection, but this is especially important if your neutrophil counts are below 1,000.

If your counts are below 500, ask your doctor if you need to avoid gardening or other activities.

Safe Gardening Is Important

The key to safe gardening during mesothelioma treatment is to protect yourself from things that may increase infection risk. Protecting against sun exposure is important, too.

  • Invest in a pair of thick leather gloves to protect your hands against dirt, rocks, sharp sticks, thorns and other items that can puncture your skin.

  • Wear long sleeves, long pants and closed-toed shoes to protect against cuts, scrapes and sun exposure.

  • Wear a high-quality sunscreen on exposed skin. Some chemotherapy treatments make skin extra sensitive to sun exposure.

  • Leave the thorny plants — roses, raspberries, cacti and other prickly greenery — to someone else.

  • Make sure your gardening tools are clean and properly sharpened to avoid needing extra pressure when cutting and digging.

  • Wash hands for 20 seconds with plain soap and running water after gardening and frequently throughout the day.

Additional Common-Sense Steps

Stay hydrated and pace yourself. Having liquids handy will ensure you don’t run dry. Be careful not to get any soil in your beverage, which will help reduce infection risk, too.

Pacing yourself can be a challenge. If you’re a longtime gardener, you may have expectations about how much you can get done in an afternoon.

If you’re fatigued from treatment, it may take longer than anticipated to finish your usual gardening tasks. Focus on the journey, not the end result. If you’re enjoying the fresh air, you may worry less about how much you get done.

Bathe or shower daily, especially if you’ve been digging in the dirt that day. Use plain, unscented lotion after bathing to avoid dry, cracked skin. Do this after each hand washing, too.

Avoid dusty, lightweight products, such as vermiculite, mulch and zeolite. Your lungs may be extra sensitive due to treatment. Avoiding excess dust will minimize irritation so you can enjoy gardening. Consider a dust mask, too.

Wearing glasses, sunglasses or work goggles will protect your eyes from irritation and potential infection. Also avoid manure-based products or other soil conditioners made of animal waste.

Check in with Your Health Care Team as Needed

If you are unsure whether a particular activity is safe for you, ask your doctor or nurse for guidance.

If you have neutropenia and develop a fever, call your doctor right away to let them know.

With a few precautions, you can spend time outdoors, enjoy a favorite activity and keep yourself protected against infection and sun exposure after a mesothelioma diagnosis.


Suzanne Dixon is a registered dietitian, epidemiologist and experienced medical writer. She has volunteered with the National Cancer Policy Forum, Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, American Institute for Cancer Research, American Society for Clinical Oncology, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The New York Times and Time Magazine also have reviewed her cancer patient resources. Read More

Sources
  1. Franklin, D. (2012, March 1). How Hospital Gardens Help Patients Heal. Scientific American.
    Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nature-that-nurtures/
  2. Mayo Clinic. (2018, January 11). Symptoms. Neutropenia.
    Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/neutropenia/basics/definition/sym-20050854
  3. CancerCare. (2017, April 28). Neutropenia and Infections: What You Need to Know.
    Retrieved from: https://www.cancercare.org/publications/216-neutropenia_and_infections_what_you_need_to_know
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). What You Need to Know. Neutropenia and Risk for Infection. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/preventinfections/pdf/neutropenia.pdf

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