UAB study hopes vegetable gardens can help cancer survivors

A UAB study will pair master gardeners with breast cancer survivors in an effort to promote a healthy diet and physical exercise.

harvest-for-health fUniversity of Alabama at Birmingham researchers want to introduce breast cancer survivors to a new kind of therapy — gardening. Harvest for Health, an ongoing study at UAB, pairs breast cancer survivors with a master gardener from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

“Having a garden may help breast cancer survivors and their families eat better, get more exercise and become healthier,” said Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences and associate director for Cancer Prevention and Control at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Studies have shown a link between diet and cancer, and between physical activity and cancer. We want to see how cancer survivors respond to this gardening intervention, as well as how it affects their diet and exercise behaviors, and their health-related quality of life and physical health status.”

UAB provides tools and seedlings, and will either prepare a raised bed in the yard of a survivor’s home or provide EarthBoxes® — large gardening containers on wheels — that can be kept on a porch or patio. Master gardeners visit with the survivors twice a month for one year, offering advice, expertise and suggestions, while answering the questions new gardeners have.

The study began in Jefferson County, Ala., in August of 2013. Recruiting is now aimed at Shelby, Blount, St. Clair and Walker counties. Eligible participants will be breast cancer survivors from those counties who have completed their primary therapy (e.g., surgery, radiation or chemotherapy) and who do not raise vegetables already.

“We’re looking for people who don’t already eat five or six servings of fruit or vegetables a day, or those who are not already physically active,” Demark-Wahnefried said. “We want to provide this study to women who will benefit the most. Besides being a good source of exercise, gardening is a good way to learn about healthy diet and nutrition, and to have some control over what one eats.”

Demark-Wahnefried wants to have the new gardeners planting early crops such as lettuce and pea pods by mid-February and expanding to tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, kale or just about any other suitable vegetable in the spring.

The master gardeners, who have completed a rigorous certification process from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, are all volunteers.

“They are very excited to be making a difference in the lives of cancer survivors and their families,” Demark-Wahnefried said. “We have plenty of master gardeners standing by. We just need more breast cancer survivors to participate in the therapy.”

The research team believes that Harvest for Health will be both fun and educational, while also motivating survivors to eat better. Preliminary results show improvement in physical function in many participants.

“They show improved strength, especially in their hands, improved mobility, and an increased ability to get up and down,” Demark-Wahnefried said. “That’s an added benefit on top of better nutrition.”

Participants in the study do not have to go to UAB, but will have three visits from the research team at their home during the course of the project, along with the twice-monthly interactions with the master gardeners.

The study is funded by a grant from the Women’s Breast Health Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. For more information on how to participate, contact study organizers at 205-996-7367 or