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UAB Testing a Greener Approach to Breast Cancer Therapy

Researchers discover new health benefits from gardeningA team of researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) want to test a revolutionary new therapy for breast cancer survivors— gardening. The ongoing study, known as Harvest for Health, groups 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,” explains Dr. Wendy Demark-Wahnefried 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.”

The university provides all of the gardening supplies necessary for this unique breast cancer research study. A raised bed is set up at the participant’s home or they are given EarthBoxes®– substantial gardening containers equipped with wheels. These are a viable solution for people with limited lawn space.

Working with Master Gardeners

During the study, these master gardeners visit with their chosen survivor twice a month for a year. Learning how to garden comes with a lot of questions. The masters help guide them along the path to earning their green thumb.

UAB Testing a Greener Approach to Breast Cancer Therapy

This breast cancer clinical study was initiated late last year in Jefferson County, AL. UAB researchers are now enrolling participants from several counties including:

  • Blount
  • Shelby
  • St. Clair
  • Walker

In order to qualify, applicants must be survivors who have already completed their primary form of breast cancer therapy. This could be:

  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Surgery

Eligible applicants also can’t have their own garden before enrolling in the study.

Gardening Tips for Breast Cancer Survivors

Breast Cancer Gardening Study“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,” said Dr. Demark-Wahnefried. “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.”

Lead investigators would like to see their “green” gardeners planting crops like pea pods and lettuce by mid-February. After that, they’ll be able to progress to some tasty spring vegetables like:

  • Peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Tomatoes
  • Kale

The master gardeners who volunteered for this study all had to pass the demanding certification process for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Dr. Demark-Wahnefried says these master gardeners were more than happy to be given this chance to positively affect the lives of breast cancer survivors. Previous studies have shown that many survivors are plagued by the fear of recurrence. The investigators hope that more breast cancer survivors will enroll in this study.

Benefits of this New Breast Cancer Therapy

Harvest for Health was designed to encourage participants (and their families) to eat better— while being both fun and educational. Early results have shown that many participants are also improving their physical function.

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

Survivors taking part in the study are not required to come into UAB. The research team will visit each participant at their home three times over the clinical trial period. This project was made possible through a grant from the Women’s Breast Health Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.

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