Given a 30% chance of surviving, this avid gardener kept sowing vege seeds she wasn’t sure she’d live to harvest


Dawn Ballagh, 44, had been hospitalized without any symptoms until doctors discovered a fist-sized tumor in her intestines.

Through surgery, chemotherapy, colostomy bags and risky reconstructive surgery, the dedicated gardener continued to plant 120 varieties of tomatoes, beans, corn, lettuce, herbs and more. .

dawn rose: I have always been a gardener.I grew up on a farm – 770 acres in Hororata [Canterbury] – And when we were kids, we were forced to help out in the garden.

But I got really into it as an adult. Even when I lived in the city, I had a vegetable garden, lots of fruit trees, and all my tomatoes in a 20 liter bucket.

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i am a chef I love knowing where my food comes from. I love knowing what went into my vegetables, knowing there are no chemicals. I know my animals have been wonderful without the stress of life and death.

I am also a passionate seed saver. My dream has always been to be nearly self-sufficient. So about five years ago, I bought 32 acres of land just a few miles from where I grew up.

There was already a tunnel house here. The previous owner grew native tree saplings, but the only edible peach growing on the property was ‘black boy’.

Dad helped me put in a raised garden bed. We had about 50 sheep, 10 cows, 13 goats, and 27 chickens (too many chickens, by the way).

In the city, a 45-minute drive away, I owned a bakery and worked 65-hour weeks on a regular basis. I still loved my garden, but the time I spent there was minimal and I was in a hurry.

But in the end I gave up the job. I planned to go around the North Island in half a year.

When I was in Rotorua I went to the hospital with a stomach ache. Doctors didn’t know what it was. At first I thought it was just constipation. However, they ran some scans and found a fist-sized tumor in my intestines and shadows in my liver and lungs.

I was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 44 with no previous symptoms or family history. Fifteen minutes after diagnosis, I had surgery. The doctor removed the tumor from my colon he nearly a meter and his 32 lymph nodes. My spleen was damaged. My oncologist said I had a 30% chance of survival.

Dawn Barra and two sheep.

Alden Williams/Staff

Dawn Barra and two sheep.

After the surgery and when I was fully recovered, I was taken by ambulance back to Christchurch, where I started chemotherapy. I had a colostomy bag for a while. I called it Neptune – like Uranus, but different.

Here on my farm, I have so much support all around me. My best friend is my next door neighbor, my cousin is across the road, and one of my aunts is down the road. I have a lot of people around me, but I couldn’t be here during my treatment. I couldn’t even leave my house, take care of my garden or my animals. I was going to make an appointment every day, but I didn’t. So I had to move to town.

Things were moving so fast at the time that all the animals had to be arranged as soon as we got back to Christchurch.

It was hard. Because it didn’t make sense, right? They told me I had a 30% chance of survival if I had chemotherapy and he had a 10% chance if I didn’t.

So I thought letting go of animals might be the beginning of the end. I thought I might never be able to live here with animals and gardens again. I didn’t even know if I would be able to get a job again.

Dawn Barra taking a photo at Darfield Farm.

Alden Williams/Staff

Dawn Barra taking a photo at Darfield Farm.

The benefits I received were $258 a week. This does not cover insurance premiums or premiums. And this farm was my dream.

The chemotherapy injections I did every three weeks, followed by eight pills every 12 hours for two weeks, were exhausting. I became sensitive to the cold of Even cutlery will burn your skin if it touches something cold. The soles of my feet were burned, blistered and peeled, and my toenails fell off. I couldn’t even go outside.

But one week out of three was a “good” week when I didn’t have to take so many medications. And sometimes I could come back and visit my garden and pick some vegetables.

I manage a gardening group on social media. While I was receiving treatment, I was doing seed exchanges with other members through posts. When someone asks me about tomatoes, I tell them what I’ve been growing – I love heirloom tomatoes, I have about 220 seeds – and they tell me where I can get seeds. I said if I could, and I said send me an envelope. When these tomatoes ripened, I sometimes wondered if I was alive.

It was hard. I have always given a lot of produce, but now I couldn’t. I hated feeling like I wasn’t contributing. When you get sick, you start feeling like someone who is a burden on others instead of someone who jumps in and helps others. It affected my sense of myself. It was a pretty dark time. Physically, but also mentally.

Dawn in 2019 with a rainbow collection of ripe fruit from her 120 Tunnel House tomatoes.

Linda Hallinan/New Zealand Gardener/Staff

Dawn in 2019 with a rainbow collection of ripe fruit from her 120 Tunnel House tomatoes.

After the chemotherapy ended, I needed bowel reconstruction. Before that, I got a miniature greenhouse from Bannings and started seeding from there. I still lived in town. Tomatoes (about 120 varieties), beans, corn, lettuce, herbs, etc. were sown.

Everything in my life was uncertain at that time. I wasn’t sure if the surgery would work (it was a big gamble). I remember thinking I was going to plant these vegetables and have a crop that would be ready to eat in four or five months or so.

At first, I had a hard time because I didn’t know if I would be able to survive. I could not see a future where I could harvest my own corn and tomatoes. But actually this was the turning point for me. In the words of actress Audrey Hepburn, planting a garden is believing in tomorrow. It was really true for me. By planting that seed, I realized that there is a future.

I had a month off before my bowel reconstruction surgery, so I felt great for a week. I risked my life to transplant the seedlings. Maybe they did.

So when I returned to the farm on November 22, 2021, the vegetables were growing well.

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For a long time I could not lift much. For a while I could only hold 1.5kg. But my tomatoes needed the sides removed. And more seeds to sow.

When I was on chemo I was pretty limited as to what I could eat. And things taste weird – this metallic taste in my mouth. While exercising in the tunnel house, you can pick up and eat asparagus, lettuce leaves, and cherry tomatoes… Everything tastes so fresh, you know it has all the vitamins and nutrients that help you stay healthy.

I don’t know what the future holds. I feel great and all my tests look good. But I may relapse again. The surgeon told me to get out and live the hell out of my life, so that’s what I do.

I don’t want to repeat this experience. But overall, I would say it changed my life in a positive way. My priorities have changed. I work 3 days a week. I have time to work in my garden. I have time to be part of the local community (I’m judging the rare pets category at the school festival next week).

Being able to say yes to things I used to say no to because I was working or had to get up for work the next day, such as going on a hike or spending time with my friends. increase. I have mentored several young people dealing with colon cancer and colostomy bags. It’s about people not speaking openly or sufficiently.

I believe the land and garden and my animals have played a huge role in my recovery, not only physically but also mentally. They have shown me a bright future.

This year, I have beans, zucchini, berries, citrus and cruciferous plants all in my tunnel house. Moreover, there are 60 kinds of tomatoes.

I also have four avocados in my tunnel house, even though people have told me they can’t grow avocados here. Frost has fallen.

They dropped all the fruit. But I cut it back. And you know what they say, where there’s life there’s hope. And now they’re covered in fruit again.



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