Harvest for Health

This 2016 file photo shows the demonstration garden at the Dothan Area Botanical Gardens and overseen by the Wiregrass Master Gardeners. UAB is seeking older cancer survivors for a study on how a home garden impacts their long-term health. Master gardeners help study participants with their gardens.

Older cancer survivors in three Wiregrass counties are being sought to participate in a study that looks at the impacts of gardening on their long-term health.

Harvest for Health was started at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in 2013 with a small pilot study, which was followed up with larger studies that focused on specific cancer patients, such as breast cancer survivors and older survivors.

Cancer survivors over age 60 from Houston, Dale and Coffee counties are currently being sought to participate in the latest study. Participants should have completed their primary therapy such as surgery, radiation or chemotherapy and currently not raise vegetables. Participants will be followed for two years.

Harvest for Health is funded by the National Cancer Institute and there is no cost or travel requirement for participants. UAB will provide tools and seedlings for gardens and will prepare a raised bed in the participant’s yard or provide EarthBoxes, which are large gardening containers on wheels.

Cancer survivors are paired with local master gardeners, who make regular visits to offer advice and answer questions. Over the two years of the study, there will be one group of survivors who begin gardening immediately and another group who will begin in the second year. Master gardeners work with participants for one year and are then assigned to another participant for the second year of the study.

Jennifer Bail, a National Cancer Institute-supported postdoctoral fellow with UAB’s Cancer Prevention and Control Training Program, said this latest Harvest for Health study is again focusing on older cancer survivors because they seem to benefit the most from at-home gardening.

Older adults generally make up the largest population of cancer survivors, who are at risk for other diseases and even additional malignancies.

“Being over age 60, you’re already having other health issues and you’re at increased risk for functional decline and not being able to maintain independence and living along,” Bail said.

Some cancer treatments can exacerbate physical decline that might come with aging as well as cause cognitive changes in older patients. Joints become more inflamed, chronic fatigue and sleep disorders can be an issue.

So how does gardening help with all of that?

Eating more vegetables is part of it, but other benefits come from the daily activity of tending to the garden – bending, stooping, picking. Past study participants became more physically active and experienced improved mobility as a result. Even their moods improved with just being outside and gardening helped with their overall wellbeing. And there’s the social aspect of working with the master gardeners.

“It becomes like a gateway activity,” Bail said. “… You start doing other things. We noticed a lot of people start doing more yard work and start taking the dog for a walk or just doing other things because now they’re out of the house and feel like doing more things.”

The latest round of Harvest for Health will involve 426 older cancer survivors from across the state. UAB researchers hope to get 58 participants from Houston, Dale and Coffee counties – those local counties where master gardeners have volunteered their services for the study.

Bail said UAB will be looking for possible participants from the Wiregrass until the end of July. To participate, visit the uab.edu/shp/h4h or contact 1-844-GROW-GR8 (1-844-476-9478) or harvest4health@uab.edu.

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