Nature as therapy: reflecting on a healing journey

Nikula with a memorial for snowboarder Craig Kelly which overlooks Baldface lodge. Photo Tim Zimmermann

In December of 2018 Bee Nikula’s life was upturned when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She was 30-years-old, had just moved from Sun Peaks to Salmo, B.C. with her husband Kieran, and was working and settling into a new home. In a whirlwind, the next month she had surgery and a few weeks later learned she had been selected to attend a bucket list snowboarding trip with Boarding for Breast Cancer (B4BC), a California-based non-profit with the mission of education about detection, prevention and support for those with breast cancer.

At the time she was excited about the opportunity to snowboard at the legendary Baldface Lodge, but didn’t realize the trip would shape her entire journey fighting the disease.

“At that time I was only a month into my diagnosis. I had no idea what I was doing, where I was going to be, what my treatment options were going to be,” Nikula said. “I obviously accepted the offer and I was also aware that I was only out of surgery for about six weeks and I probably wasn’t supposed to be on a snowboard for maybe another six to ten. But I took that as a really big motivator.

“I focused really heavily on preparing myself, and I was. By the time the trip was to begin I was feeling strong, I was feeling healthy.”

Despite some nerves, Nikula said she quickly felt at ease with the group when she arrived in April 2019. Three other women experiencing different stages of breast cancer had also been selected to join and the remaining 46 women were industry leaders, B4BC staff and athletes, many of whom had their own connections to cancer.

“Unfortunately two of the women from the B4BC fundraiser were unable to come last minute due to how their diagnoses had progressed since their application, which was really emotional for a lot of us…it puts it into perspective really quickly, that a lot is unknown still and we got to have moments for that. Moments of silence, moments of love and gratitude towards them and just wishing them well on their journey. That was a hard one, because at that point I was so fresh, I had only been diagnosed for about three months.”

Nikula said she was overwhelmed by attendees’ support and questions about her treatment decisions. But it helped her realize she could accept help.

“I’ve always been the person that gives to others, who cares for others, so to be sitting in a beautiful group of women and to be acknowledged as a young female with breast cancer, it was scary. It made it very real, but then it also made me realize that it’s going to be okay. Because each person would come with a kind gesture, a kind message, words of encouragement, words of support. It shifted my mindset around building relationships quite a lot because I used to hold back quite a bit but I realized the moment I let my vulnerability show to these women that I was held in such a safe spot. And what a better place to be when you’re high in the alpine? You’re removed from the world, you’re removed from your doctors’ visits, you’re removed from the constant reminder of there’s still more to go. And you’re not focusing on the fear, you’re focusing on the best part, which is snowboarding.”

Nikula with Megan Pischke and Colleen Bates on the Baldface trip. Photo supplied

Throughout the weeklong trip, Nikula connected with Megan Pischke, B4BC wellness director, who encouraged her to choose the treatments she believed in.

“She took me under her wing, she became very much a pivotal role in my life, and still is. She sat down with me and talked through what I was doing and my choices and what integrative therapies I was looking into…she introduced me to my integrative doctor who is a naturopathic doctor…(he) is the most incredible doctor I have ever met. So she changed my life.”

With Pischke, B4BC, other new friends from the trip and a doctor who prescribed time outdoors every day alongside other recommendations on her side, Nikula charged into a year of treatments.

“To have a doctor tell me to do what I love was a very validating moment for me and it made me realize that it’s okay to do things a little differently.”

While Nikula tried all kinds of treatments, both traditional and alternative, one thing remained steady throughout it all— time in nature. She said the physical and emotional aspects both played key roles in improving her health.

“I believe incredibly deeply in nature therapy and what we can gain from that. The ability to just ground myself in the midst of chaos has been the best thing that I’ve allowed for myself to do. No one prepares you for these decisions that you’re going to make and when you can be at peace, when you’re outside and you’re in your element you feel the safest in, it makes those decisions easier.

“Looking around you 360 degrees and you’re up top and that’s it, nothing else matters, that is my safe place, that is my haven. That is where I still go on a regular basis.”

Months after the Baldface trip Nikula attended a women’s surfing retreat in Mexico and found the same thing applied on the beach.

“You’re working through big traumas but then using nature and our bodies to work through it… I always knew I loved sports and winter sports and being outside, but, prior to all of this, I never looked at it as self care and now it’s my greatest tool.”

One year after her diagnosis Nikula now shows no evidence of disease and recognizes the huge role B4BC played in starting and guiding how the last year played out.

Nikula and other attendees of the Baldface trip with B4BC. Photo Tim Zimmermann

“The trip to Baldface was for sure the starting point that opened the door for me and I am forever grateful to be for B4BC for doing the fundraising to make that an opportunity, and that’s just one (trip). They do amazing retreats that are primarily much more focused on young women with breast cancer…I would love to attend one of those and that’s my goal.

“To have an organization that gets you to dream opportunities like a Baldface, like a surfing trip and helps you get there and covers that (financially) and then feeds you magically delicious food that is so good for your mind, body and soul and takes care of you and helps you listen to everything you’re feeling. They bring the practitioners, they bring the therapist, they bring the acupuncturists and energy healers. They give you the tools that you can pick and choose what’s working for you and take that off into where you go next. And giving that to young women who are probably in a place of the unknown is the greatest gift someone could offer.”

Still in Salmo, Nikula is now working on education in holistic nutrition, spending a lot of time outdoors, nurturing relationships she created over the last year and making small changes to pivot her career and life toward helping others.

“I can bring that sense of joy to someone else just from being me, how easy is that? It’s like the most beautiful cycle. It’s so easy—we always overthink things. That’s my focus, I just want people to be happy and to live in a place where there feeling satisfied and recognizing that even when things get very, very hard and very dark the moment you remember it’s only temporary is the moment when you get to replace it with a good so quickly

“I would obviously never wish what I went through on anyone, but I am beyond grateful for what it’s given me. If I could use my story and my experience to help others before they would ever have to experience something like cancer, that’s the biggest win.”

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