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Cancer. The word spoken aloud can pierce your heart with fear. It’s not possible to live without being touched directly by this disease or watching helplessly as it affects someone you love.

My dear friend Kristin, a botanist, river guide, herbalist, healer and Hopi language activist, has been struggling with breast cancer since she was diagnosed five years ago. I met her almost 20 years ago when we were in graduate school and spending summers in the Ponderosa pine forest studying how plant communities recover from fires. She was the first scientist I worked with who was giddy about flowers and greeted them like friends she hadn’t seen in a while. A few years later we teamed up with another friend to write a book about Grand Canyon river plants—which only took six years!—enough time for our friendship to take root and grow.

Kristin has a deep and abiding love and respect, curiosity, and spiritual connection with plants that has inspired my own journey to know them. She introduced me to the world of medicinal plants revered by Hopi people, to herbalism practice, and innovative gardening techniques.

Kristin and her husband live in a tiny house on a beautiful homestead perched above the Gila River hot springs and surrounded by wilderness. They grow the majority of their food and she makes medicine from plants she collects from along the river and in the mountains in her backyard. Standing in her root cellar you feel like you are in the womb of the earth. Jars of various sizes filled with tinctures, canned and fermented foods, and dried herbs line the shelves. Inside one jar are hundreds of cottonwood buds, like tiny claws floating, their medicine being extracted in olive oil. When she removed the lid, I inhaled the aroma of a stream bottom, of detritus and unbridled potential, new and green, ready to unfurl into leaves and canopy—a life force for people, insects and birds.

When faced with the diagnosis, the doctor advised Kristin that she have a lumpectomy, remove her lymph nodes, do chemotherapy and radiation. The foundation of her belief system is to live in harmony with nature, so that is how she addressed her diagnosis. Ever the scientist, she did her research and in the process, shifted her entire life focus to natural healing. Becoming sick infused her with passion to study craniosacral bodywork and kinesiology, so she could not just heal herself but also help others.

Recently, a PET scan revealed that the cancer is back, now at stage four and spreading to other parts of her body. I tried to imagine receiving this news. How it could crush your soul like a hammer and shatter any positive progress you have made. Then add the confounding effect of those closest to you, who out of love and fear of losing you will question your choices. Decisions like this test the very foundations of your spiritual beliefs. There is no map, each of us must find our own way and Kristin is walking hers with courage and grace.

Once again, Kristin had to make a difficult decision. Still, she could not bring herself to abandon the natural course she was on for pharmaceutical treatments. She brought all of her collective resources to bear and sought out talented doctors and is now undergoing aggressive IV and ozone therapies.

For her birthday in late January Kristin called on her girlfriends to gather around her and help with a healing ceremony. She asked us to bring our shared experience to help release anger, regret and suppressed emotions. This is something we’ve been doing every winter solstice, so we were ready with all of our ceremonial tools packed. We drove the winding road through forests of Saguaro cacti that have weathered heavy grazing and drought and are now facing the uncertainty of climate change, yet stand fierce and rooted in their survival. Kristin was strong enough to walk the uneven terrain along an ephemeral desert creek. We nestled around the glistening water in the late winter sunshine. Kristin applied the all-natural Tango-tinted lip gloss I gave her for her birthday, laughed, and her shimmering lips smiled for us. She passed it around as part of the ceremony. We all looked great in the color Tango.

We talked about the heavy weight of anger, how much energy it takes to keep the rage burning inside us. We expressed our gratitude for the way this fire motivates action. She told us about the male doctor who warned her patronizingly, “You are going to have to decide how attached you are to your breast.” We imagined him at the bottom of a crack in a nearby rock, tiny in his white coat, without power. We tried to forgive people like him who have done us wrong. We listened to the heavy weight of Kristin’s burdens, the fear of people’s judgments, the worry and blame she is holding onto. She handed it off to us in words, little by little, then drained more in tears, and we let ours go, too, regrets rolling down our cheeks mingling with the pure, cold water melting from the Rincon Mountains. We wrote it all down on beautiful gold leaf paper and burned a tiny fire of the crumpled emotions with our juniper smoke.

I sang her a song that I wrote:

The River she knows a lot

But she’s not gonna tell you everything, oh no she’s not

Get into your boat, grab hold of the oars

Row for your life toward the sound of that roar

There ain’t no going back now

‘Cause you just left the safety of the shore.

I imagined Kristin’s body was a river flowing, a powerful, healing life force moving from the top of her head down her spine around the curve of her bottom along the backs of her legs and out the tip of her toes. This river flowed all the way to the sea, uniting with the great unconscious, uncertain, unknowable future, beyond our control. This journey is not unlike others she has taken, remembering her bravery when she rowed her first boat through the Grand Canyon. I was there with her then, holding on, feeling the raw fear, praying, cheering and hugging her at the bottom of each rapid. Kristin grabbed those oars and rowed for her life then, as she knows she must do now.

To follow Kristin on her journey, visit her blog at

Kate Watters is a plant enthusiast, writer, artist and musician. She has been a resident of Flagstaff for almost 20 years, and recently took a hiatus to Santa Cruz, Calif., where she was farm apprentice at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She is now armed with hand pruners and a harvest knife and intends to apply her newfound knowledge and passion to growing all kinds of plants in northern Arizona.

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