Garden for Health: Using the Earth to Heal from Cancer

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When Rita’s doctor finally said she was in remission from the Stage 1 breast cancer that had consumed the past two years of her life, she was thrilled. She had been exercising throughout her battle with the disease, and her doctor recommended she continue working out in recovery.

Rita stuck to her regular walks on the treadmill, but she often had to talk herself into exercising. She eventually lost interest and stopped going to the gym. She felt guilty for dropping the ball on her own health.

A few months later, Rita learned about Harvest for Health, a program offered through Alabama’s National Cancer Institute. This ongoing gardening research study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham offers cancer survivors the chance to work in a home vegetable garden to improve their overall health and well-being.

For one year, Rita, with the help of a Master Gardener from the state’s Cooperative Extension System, would grow and manage a garden in containers in her own back yard. Kerry Smith, state program coordinator, said, “Our program is unique because it’s part of a research study. Our toolkit we provide the participants is very simple: a 12-month mentor for each participant, a home garden, in either patio boxes or a 4-by-8-foot raised bed, and supplies for planting and tending the garden.”

Many gardeners can attest that working with the earth, growing food and using their harvest is therapeutic and rewarding. Cancer survivors who begin gardening are also seeing similar results. By adding healthy lifestyle behaviors like gardening to their recovery process, they can improve their overall health, physical functioning and general quality of life.

The study’s results showed that the home garden increased consumption of vegetables in the diet, improved strength and flexibility, motivated daily exercise and dramatically raised levels of telomerase, an enzyme in the body used to predict aging, for cancer survivors.

All participants who finished the study rated the experience as “good to excellent” and reported that they would do it again. “In fact,” noted Kerry. “Eighty-five percent of participants, or 70 of 82 in one trial, were still gardening one year after their study participation ended. So, in other words, they kept gardening without the support of a mentor.” Additional studies are underway to understand the potential benefits of gardening for various groups of cancer survivors.

For over 15 million cancer survivors in the U.S., two-thirds of whom are older than 60, medical professionals recommend lifestyle changes that can aid in their recovery. Cancer survivors can be counseled about eating more nutritiously or going to the gym, but many patients are finding that growing healthy food and eating it is more rewarding. Gardening can help anyone be healthier, but for cancer survivors or those still battling, it can provide lasting meaning.

Another program aimed at helping cancer recovery patients is the Garden of Hope on Ohio State University’s Waterman Farm. This three-acre community garden partners with a local cancer hospital to allow cancer survivors to pick produce throughout the summer while showing them how to grow their own vegetables at home. Survivors and their caregivers are taught the basics of planting, tending and harvesting. The “farmers” can then visit weekly to reap their rewards by taking home produce and eating their phytochemical-packed food. The farm provides patients an escape from their current situation while giving them something positive on which to focus their attention.

Each year, over 400 survivors and their caregivers harvest produce from the Garden of Hope, and their studies prove extremely beneficial for those involved. Research not only focuses on whole food consumption, but on multiple lifestyle patterns including physical activity, stress and behaviors. In multiple studies, those completing the gardening program showed significant improvements in Healthy Eating Index scores, inflammatory and metabolic biomarkers and quality of life.

In addition to the more obvious nutritional and physical benefits of gardening, the restorative effects of interacting with nature are also evident. Patients and survivors who work in natural settings tend to recover faster, require less pain medication and have more favorable feelings about their recovery. Patients and their caregivers report that gardening reduces everyday stress and improves mood. The longer patients garden, more symptoms of depression such as fatigue and sadness lessen while memory function improves.

More people are surviving cancer and living years beyond their original diagnosis or expectations. Gardening is proving to be a catalyst to a longer, more quality-driven life. Although programs like these may not be available to everyone, just about anyone, anywhere who wants to learn to garden can find a mentor. With survivorship programs like gardening, patients are not only getting their physical function restored, they are gaining self-worth while improving their everyday life. ■

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