Jul/Aug
2016

Healing Waters: Finding Calm Amidst Chaos

Written by Jennifer Gangloff Photography by Mike Hardwick Photography
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Michelle Brandenburger is one of those people who had managed to avoid the hospital most of her life. She got regular checkups and mammograms and admits to having a low pain tolerance. "My sister calls me a wimp," Brandenburger jokes.

So it was an especially harsh blow last October when Brandenburger, now 49, was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer, and hospitals and pain became her new normal. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy and several months of chemotherapy. "The surgery was bad, but the chemo was even worse," she says. "The fatigue, the nausea, the neuropathy—it's been pretty bad."

 Calm Amidst the Chaos

One bright spot is a waterfall garden, installed through the Healing Waters Project, a partnership between Whitewater Gardens, Join the Journey and Rochester Women magazine to benefit breast cancer survivors. Tucked alongside the Brandenburger family's backyard deck at their home in Rochester, the waterfall offers a calming retreat from the medical chaos. Brandenburger says, "It's just gorgeous. We can sit in the living room and hear the waterfall. We are so looking forward to summer, when I can spend some time outside enjoying it."

The waterfall was installed in May by Michael Otte, owner of Whitewater Gardens in St. Charles, and his crew, with Reinders of Rochester donating mechanical pieces to operate the water feature. This marks the 10th water feature that Otte has donated for Healing Waters. Dedicated to the cause, Otte and his crew hand-pick the field stone boulders, some of which weigh hundreds of pounds, and spend hours tweaking the design and installation every year. "There's always lots of discussion about the perfect way to fit the rocks together," he says. "Each water feature we do is a new challenge."

Garden Tour Feature

The Brandenburger waterfall is among five private gardens that will be featured in the Rochester Garden and Flower Club 2016 Annual Garden Tour, on Thursday, July 21, for $15 per person (18 and under free). "Mike does amazing work and is a creative, caring and compassionate person," says Connie Parrett of the Garden Club. 

"It has been wonderful to have the garden featured in the Rochester Garden Tour," says Christine Fredriksen, executive director of Join the Journey, a Rochester-based nonprofit organization that supports survivors and promotes breast cancer awareness. "We hope that this program will continue to bring hope and healing to local breast cancer survivors. We are grateful for the partnerships and the many hardworking volunteers who make this program possible."

A week later, on Wednesday, July 27 from 4-8:30 p.m. is Olmsted County's 2016 Tour with the Masters, a private garden tour for only $5 per person. Both the Garden and Flower Club and the Master's tours are self-guided tours, with the option of touring via trolley with the Rochester Trolley & Tour Co.

Hope for the Future

For Brandenburger, the future does bring hope, even if it also comes with a hint of fear and more surgery on the horizon. "It's been difficult for everybody," says Brandenburger, who with her husband, Wes, has two children, Sophie, age 9, and Nicholas, 11. "My husband has really stepped up to do everything around the house and has taken lots of time off work. It's been very hard on my kids, especially my daughter, and they wonder why I'm so tired and can't do things with them. But it's getting better now."

Brandenburger, a teacher at Hawthorne Education Center, has been able to work more since finishing chemo, which she chose to stop a bit ahead of schedule because of intolerable side effects. She's also been a frequent volunteer in Sophie's classroom.

"I've had amazing support from my family, friends, students and colleagues," she says. "I've missed a lot of work, and to come back to work again and be supported has really been helpful through this process. It's been an amazing last seven months despite my diagnosis."

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 Jennifer Gangloff is a Rochester-based freelance editor and writer and a 16-year cancer survivor.