Life begins the day one plants a garden.
~~ Chinese Proverb
I have waited almost six months to be able to share this exciting news with my blog readers. Good things often take time to work, to emerge, or to fully develop, rather like rising bread, planting seeds, etc., and are well worth the wait.
The brief backstory. A friend visited our farm last summer, telling me of her recent research focused on gardening therapy for cancer survivors. As I listened, I had one of those proverbial "light bulb" moments with racing thoughts that translated to:
1. Wow - What a great project!
2. Why didn't I think of that?
3. How can I help her get as much data as possible from this study?
We talked a bit, I made some inquiries, and long story short, the 2014 distribution from my endowment at The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) will be able to provide the additional funds this researcher needs to do the critical biochemical analyses that were included with the original grant proposal but left unfunded. (Note: My endowment at AICR is funded by individual donations - thank you! - plus the amount I annually contribute from the sale of my book A Dietitian's Cancer Story.)
For this study (called "Harvest for Health"), University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) cancer researchers plan to introduce 100 breast cancer survivors in a 5-county area in Alabama (see below) to a new kind of therapy — gardening, while pairing the breast cancer survivors with a Master Gardener from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
“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, how it affects their diet and exercise behaviors, and their health-related quality of life and physical health status,” 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.
“Harvest for Health” builds on a successful pilot study conducted by Dr. Demark-Wahnefried at UAB where Master Gardeners worked with a smaller group of cancer survivors over the course of a year to establish a vegetable garden. At the end of that study, the published results showed that many survivors not only improved their diet and exercise behaviors, but 90% of the participants also demonstrated significant improvement in objective measures of their strength, agility, and endurance.
This larger study had hoped to expand those findings by not only having a larger study group, but also by measuring several biochemical parameters that are frequently used as biomarkers of successful aging, i.e., telomerase, sVCAM, and d-dimer, at baseline, the 1-year mark, and the 2-year mark after the start of the study. While The Women’s Breast Health Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham has generously provided the bulk of the Harvest for Health research grant, my endowment at AICR will fund the last piece to complete the study with as much data collection and analysis as possible.
Dr. Demark-Wahnefried (who has led several previous pioneering research studies on cancer survivorship) has noted, "With advances in early detection and treatment, many cancers are now being cured; however, it is the side effects of cancer and its treatment that are often more of a problem than the cancer itself. Thus these biomarkers are important to measure because they tie into longevity and improved physical functioning much more so than cancer itself."
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 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.
If the larger study shows the same improvements in healthy eating, increased exercise, and physical functioning, plus the biochemical signs of successful aging, it is hoped that the program can be offered to cancer survivors throughout Alabama.
Special Note: The Harvest for Health study is still actively recruiting participants. If any of my readers are breast cancer survivors from (or know someone from) the following five Alabama counties (Cullman, Mobile, Blount, St. Clair or Walker) and are interested in participating in this study, you may call the following telephone # 205.996.7367 for more information.
Dr. Demark-Wahnefried is a gardener herself. I asked when she had her original inspiration for this innovative research approach for cancer survivors. She told me it happened a while ago during her previous years as a researcher at Duke University's Cancer Center while she was conducting research - the Black Churches United for Better Health Project - in which Master Gardeners helped the churches establish Victory Gardens as a way to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among their members.
That project was successful, so fast forward to 2014, hoping the same will be true for cancer survivors. I'm not sure if my friend's great idea happened in a "flash" like mine did during our talk this past summer, but in any case, here is another example of a great idea that needed time to develop, to be nurtured, to grow, before finally blossoming.
Thank you, Wendy, for your decades of high quality, pioneering nutrition and cancer research, for your dedication to the needs of cancer survivors, looking for nutritional and lifestyle strategies that will optimize their odds for both the extension and quality of life after cancer.
I have been honored to contribute to each research project that my endowment at AICR has funded since 2001. However, I must confess that funding Harvest for Health in 2014 also gives me deep happiness, I suppose because this study brings together so many of my long-standing professional interests, friendships, and deeply-held personal values.
As a long-time gardener myself, I have always loved the following quotation:
A garden is the best alternative therapy.
~~ Germaine Greer
Now here's another great idea - let's change the quote above to simply say that a garden is the best therapy period, without being "alternative", providing multiple, far-reaching benefits for all cancer survivors, no matter the individual diagnosis, no matter where one lives, in fact for everyone, cancer diagnosis or not. :)
And another great idea, i.e., words of advice, which my long-time blog readers have heard me say many times before - don't wait, don't wait, don't wait for this study to be done to _________________ (fill in the blank); in this case, don't wait to get your garden started. Why? I'll repeat the quote I used to open up this blog post:
Life begins the day one plants a garden.
~~ Chinese Proverb
Ready to start? It's not too early to start dreaming, planning, or even planting some seeds indoors. Need help? Find a gardening friend, find a Master Gardener in your county (yes, they are everywhere, not just in Alabama), find, cultivate, and begin a new life. Yes, you are what you grow. :)
Cultivate your life - you are what you grow - inch by inch, row by row,
Diana Dyer, MS, RD