University of Alabama Study Explores the Link Between Gardening and Health for Cancer Survivors

A study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham aims to help cancer survivors by letting them grow vegetables. Harvest for Health, which began with a pilot study in Jefferson County in 2011 that has since expanded, has helped participating survivors show significant health improvements.

Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., is the associate director for cancer prevention and control in the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, a registered dietitian and a Nutrition Sciences professor at the university. She posed the original question about whether or not there was a link between cancer and a person’s diet and has seen evidence that a diet high in fruits and vegetables can have health benefits for cancer survivors.

Demark-Wahnefried asked whether or not cancer survivors who start a vegetable garden would eat more vegetables. She states that the results shows “they not only ate more vegetables, they also got more exercise. And their physical functioning improved dramatically.”

The study also revealed that survivors had improved strength (especially in their hands), improved mobility, and greater ability to get up and down thanks to gardening.

The UAB program helps survivors prepare a raised bed in their gardens or give them EarthBoxes®, which are gardening containers on wheels that they can keep on porches and patios. The program’s master gardeners visit the survivors each month for a year to offer gardening tips and answer questions. The program also provides the gardeners with tools and seedlings.

Mary Beth Shaddix, a master gardener, worked with Susan Rossman, a breast cancer survivor, back in 2011. Together, they developed a strategy of growing tomatoes, kale, lettuce, spinach, and a variety of herbs in one of the raised beds. Rossman has since added another bed with strawberries and blueberries, in addition to keeping bees for honey.

Even though plants, such as vegetables, are mostly comprised of water (by about 90 percent), these fruits and vegetables contain enormous benefits for all who eat them, but especially for cancer survivors. The American Cancer Society recommends that patients drink plenty of water and get plenty of vitamins, especially A, C and E, which are immune system-boosting antioxidants. Antioxidants can be found in many fruits and vegetables, such as the ones grown by Rossman.

In addition to improving nutrition, the study also contained other benefits for cancer survivors. Demark-Wahnefried also noted that patients had improved quality of life and higher self-esteem — factors that may be intangible but still contributed to the participants’ overall health.

Shaddix stated that gardening has enormous advantages for mental health, too. “I think gardening improves your mental well-being tremendously,” she said. “Just being outdoors for an hour each day to tend to your plants improves your mental and physical well-being. I think there is room for gardening in everyone’s life, and I also think there is room on your kitchen table for what you grow no matter what you are faced with in life.”

The UAB study is funded by the Women’s Breast Health Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, with support from the National Cancer Institute. It has now expanded to many counties surrounding Birmingham, along with the Cullman, Montgomery, Mobile and Dothan areas. Demark-Wahnefried hopes to see Harvest for Health turn into a national program over the next decade.