I Have Terminal Cancer. A Houseplant Is Helping Me Confront Mortality.

His lucky bamboo is more than just a plant

My wife and I usually don’t keep houseplants. Anything in pots gets either overwatered or underwatered. After my diagnosis with glioblastoma—a terminal brain cancer with a prognosis of little more than a year to live—I loved the idea of having something new and green and alive around us.

When my friend Mitch gave me what he said was a lucky bamboo plant in a deep-green pottery bowl with three pencil-size stalks braided together, we decided to place the plant in the living room window across from the couch where I spent much of each day.

I smiled when I looked over the rim of the mug of coffee Hannah brought me each morning.

I told Hannah I wanted to care for the plant myself. When it didn’t immediately turn yellow or brown or lose all of its leaves, I was pleasantly surprised.

Tending to the plant gave me a sense of accomplishment at a time when I sometimes felt useless. Glioblastoma limited my ability to walk, and the treatment left me fatigued, making it hard for me to accomplish everyday tasks.

Being dependable again

As a physician, I was used to being the one who provided care, not the one who received it. Since my diagnosis in August 2018, far too often, it seemed, I had to rely on help from other people. The enormous change left me feeling adrift and unsettled. Watering the plant, as small an act as it was, connected me to a core part of my old identity and taught me I could still be a caregiver. Plants and people could still depend on me.

Over the next few months, I recovered from surgery and completed radiation and the first round of chemotherapy. Even after I returned to work, I continued to care for the plant. Soon, it had nearly doubled in height and its leaves were shiny and lush. Both the tree and I were thriving.

Then, mysteriously, it began to show signs of stress. I increased my plant watering, then decreased it. I nestled coffee grounds into the soil. I fed it commercial plant food. No matter what I did, the leaves kept browning and dropping to the floor. I grew more and more frustrated and uneasy.

“I can’t even care for a simple plant!” I yelled. “I’m failing!”

Hannah reminded me that we’d seen houseplants die before. She asked me why I was getting so worked up about this particular one.

“If my lucky bamboo dies,” I blurted out, “I might die too!”

I couldn’t shake the feeling that the plant had become a symbol of my own precarious health.

Solace and control

Identifying with the green and growing plant had offered me solace. Now that the tree was struggling, I felt increasingly fearful. Its shriveling leaves, I worried, might signal the recurrence of my brain tumor.

I realized I had wrongly connected my careful nurturing of the plant—something over which I had at least some control—with my own survival—something over which I had no control.

When my tumor inevitably returned, it would not be because of any failure on my part—not because I didn’t atomize essential oils in my office, not because I ate sugar occasionally and certainly not because I failed to keep this plant alive.

As my anxiety lessened, I began to pore over online tutorials to help me figure out how to care for my ailing plant. Following the instructions, I transplanted the tree to a larger pot, untangling its roots to give it room to grow. When it was back in the sunny window, we both began to thrive again.

Whenever I look at the tree with its braided stalks in its new pot, I make a point to think of Mitch and the other people who have cared for and supported me. If the plant outlives me, I hope it will comfort Hannah and remind her that our large community will continue to nurture her after I am gone.

Next, read about how for one woman, caring for her mother’s plants is helping her prepare for a life without her mom.

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David Meyers
David Meyers is a family physician and a health policy researcher in the D.C. area living with terminal cancer. Currently receiving additional treatment for disease progression, he is writing a memoir with his wife, Hannah Joyner.