Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Cancer Victory Gardens, Alabama-style!

Indeed! Actually this "Cancer Victory Garden" project (called Harvest for Health) is in the research stage, but no one really needs to wait until all the results are collected and published to get started and enjoy the benefits of gardening. To give you the complete story, I am cross-posting the full info from my dianadyer blog. Reaching this point has taken years of step, step, step determination along with good friends and a bit of good luck. Enjoy the read and the example of what you can do for yourself, no matter where you live! 


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


Ready, set, grow!

Cultivating health through a garden's nourishment of both body and soul,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

This could be a Cancer Victory Garden!

Kale in a hospital? Yes!

Vegetable gardening from a wheelchair, at a hospital? Yes!

I am so behind (farming does that) that I know I will never catch up and never be able to do this blog justice with all the ideas I have had over the years for Cancer Victory Gardens. I get a little misty-eyed thinking about that, but frankly I need my sleep. And you'll see that I'm not all that active anymore on my other two blogs ( and either. I repeat. Farming does that!

However, once in a while, something comes along that I just HAVE to share with everyone I know, every way I can.

Such is the case with this short documentary that gives the history and the purpose of The Farm at St. Joe's in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Yes, I am interviewed for this documentary (I serve on the Farm's Advisory Committee) but it is not at all about me, not at all. The Farm at St. Joe's is all about healing patients and creating healthy communities and has won an major award from the Catholic Healthcare Association for this ground-breaking (literally and figuratively) work.

Please note that one of their hoop houses is completely accessible for anyone with disabilities. In addition, there is so much opportunity for food and nutrition education, from field to fork, from farm to plate, from seed to stomach, however you want to phrase the process of what I like to say, 'We are what we grow!'

I can see so many ways that cancer centers could be integrating their patients into a clinic or hospital-based farm, or even small vegetable gardens. Why do cancer centers sometimes help patients who need food assistance with cans of liquid nutrients? Why not let them take home vegetables they have helped to grow or simply give them organically grown and delicious kale instead? or collards? or carrots? or purple potatoes? or garlic? or ................. the list is endless!

Lastly, one of my favorite gardening quotations is one I have used before on this blog and my others:

Life begins the day one plants a garden.
~ Chinese Proverb

Please feel free to share this short documentary widely. Who knows when life will begin again for someone who has the opportunity to work in a Cancer Victory Garden? Who knows how far the ideas, the happiness, the health, and healing at The Farm will spread? Maybe even to your hospital or cancer center! :) I hope so!

Cultivating health through a garden's nourishment of both body and soul,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Another great gardening quotation

And a new one for me, so I just had to add it as a follow-up to my last post.

As long as one has a garden, one has a future.
As long as one has a future, one is alive. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Secret Garden, "In the Garden"

Now I want to re-read The Secret Garden, but that will have to wait until next winter. Weeding beckons for our garlic fields as does bed preparation for our family garden. In the meantime, I hope you nurture your future by getting your hands in the soil sometime this spring. :)

Cultivating health through a garden's nourishment of both body and soul,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Gardening as "Therapy"

I have my personal belief that gardening is the best all-encompassing and most effective type of complementary medicine, i.e. "therapy", that one could possibly choose for both healing and health. Thus the following poster brought a smile to my face this morning and thus I want to share it on my 'cancer victory gardens' blog, hoping it brings a smile to your face and an urge to get outside with your hands in the soil.

Well, the great part is you get so much more than tomatoes! I'll leave you with my two favorite quotes about gardening, and you'll get the idea of what I mean when I say gardening gives you so much more than tomatoes. :)

Gardening is a labor of love.
A treadmill is just labor.
~ Anonymous

Life begins the day you plant a garden.
~ Chinese Proverb

Cultivating health through a garden's nourishment of both body and soul,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cross post - Getting ready to 'launch'

I don't cross-post very often from my other blogs, but here is the scoop. I am getting close to having all my blogs and website (thus my brain!) under one umbrella at

No worries - if you only visit my CancerVictoryGardens blog, you will continue to only see those posts or that 'feed'.

Here is what I wrote on my dianadyer blog this morning. Now off for a break, getting outside to enjoy our spring weather (70's in the upper Midwest, even tho' it is still officially winter!), decide where my kale will be planted, get a bed ready for that, finish getting some more bluebird houses up, etc. etc. :)

Cultivating health through a garden's nourishment of both body and soul,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD

Sunday, March 4, 2012

For those that follow

I always feel like apologizing for my lack of posting on this blog. Pure and simple, there are not enough hours in a day to do everything I want to do.

I had the pleasure of sharing a day with dietetic interns at Western Michigan University last month and also meeting some of their faculty. I feel like I made at least a dozen new friends! One of the faculty members told me about a plaque that her dad (or grandfather?) had in his office that she now has in hers.

The message on the plaque fits so beautifully on this blog, which is about gardening for life, for memories, for the future, all of the above. No matter which reason each of us may start a Cancer Victory Garden™, I'll just guess that we end up thinking deeply about 'all of the above' during the times we are down on our knees with our hands in the earth.

My friend sent me a photo of her plaque, which I am sure that she reads with loving memories but also with an eye firmly on the future. No matter what she plants in her own garden, I know for certain that she is planting and nurturing seeds of professionalism in her student dietitians.

Thank you, Carol, for sharing your family with me and also sharing your commitment to health through whole foods with the future.

(Photo: The Talmud (Ta-anit 23a) from Carol Pratt, Kalamazoo, MI) 
Cultivating health through a garden's nourishment of both body and soul,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD

Monday, January 16, 2012

New Cancer Victory Garden!

I always start off my week by lighting candles of hope for all involved with a cancer journey at the website I send out that hope to everyone, the person with the diagnosis, all caregivers (professional, family, friends), plus all involved in the oncology research community. I always leave that website with a mix of feelings, yes, gratefulness, but also feelings ranging from melancholy to deep determination.

Today I had the exquisite pleasure of segueing directly from determination to pure inspiration and joy when I next opened up my Gmail email account (cancervictorygarden (at) gmail (dot) com) that I reserve for this blog to find a beautiful message from a young cancer survivor who embodies everything I had hoped to achieve with my CancerVictoryGardens blog. :-)

This young woman's own 'cancer victory garden' story and accompanying photographs brought tears to my eyes, tears of everything, from remembering tears of fear, tears of loss, tears of tentative hope, tears of resilience, tears of determination, tears of accomplishment, tears of wonder from self-discovery, tears of joy, tears of tentative hope again, tears of loving and being loved, tears of happiness from knowing I may have made a difference to one person. There are probably even more types of tears in that mix, too, but those give you some insight into the broad sweep of being inside my long cancer journey.

I am printing her story in its entirety. It is as clear as a bright, sunny day during a Michigan winter! Her accompanying photographs perfectly capture and convey the beauty and joy she has found in her life.

I'll sign off and then urge you to keep reading below my name where I am deeply honored to introduce and share Donna's Cancer Victory Garden in New Jersey. I hope the magic of the internet allows another person with a cancer diagnosis to find inspiration to live, and to live well after cancer by nourishing your own Cancer Victory Garden, no matter how small (start with one package of seeds in a pot) or where you live in this wide, wide world.  :-)

Cultivating health through a garden's nourishment of both body and soul,
Diana Dyer, MS, RD

Submitted by Donna H. of Camden, New Jersey
In 2008, during a routine mammogram, an eagle-eyed radiologist discovered my invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer. A double mastectomy and 4 rounds of chemotherapy followed.  I thought my life was over before it ever really began.  I was filled with regret over all my past missed opportunities and I grieved for things I believed that I would never have, such as a child of my own.  I struggled to find the strength to face my disease and endure treatment.  
During my recuperation from surgery, my mother bought me a pack of seeds and a pink gardening kit.  I was unimpressed.  I lived in an apartment and I had cancer.  I wasn’t in the mood to take on a new hobby, especially one that might involve bugs! My mom would not be deterred. She planted the seeds in a tray and placed it in my laundry room.  She left me strict instructions about watering, and when and how to repot the seedlings when the plants were large enough. 
So as not to disappoint her, I half-heartedly followed her instructions. I watered the tray of seeds and placed them in a sunny location.  I checked on them every day. After a few weeks, a funny thing started to happen.  I found myself looking forward to watching the progression of my little flower seedlings.  I was happy and more than a little excited when the plants were big enough to be transplanted.  After a few more weeks, as I neared the end of my chemo treatments, the flowers began to bloom.  .  I realized that the flowers symbolized so much for me about life and renewal and health.  I was transfixed by the lovely profusions of colors and textures and smells.  I rejoiced in the blossoms as much as I rejoiced at the end of chemotherapy. 
From then on, the strength and beauty found in something so delicate inspired me.  I discovered that I felt calmer and could forget about cancer when I tended to my flowers. Each day brought a new discovery about the plants. I realized that I loved digging in the dirt and caring for my plants.  (Bugs be damned!)  I enjoyed learning about the rhythms of life and how a little light, some water, and lots of love can produce something wondrous.  It felt good to feel the warmth of the sun on my bald head and my arms felt more flexible after a few rounds of weeding.  
Today, I have my own house with a little backyard. I grow flowers, organic vegetables and all sorts of plants.  This year I even I added strawberries.  My beautiful baby girl, whom I adopted last fall, enjoys being next to me outside while I weed, water and tend to my garden.   We take pleasure in nature and our souls benefit from all the beauty around us.  And my mom? She couldn’t be happier for her daughter, the gardener.  

(Donna receiving chemotherapy)
(Donna's first flowers from the seeds given to her by her mother)
(Donna's adopted daughter Bella, the perfect name for this beautiful baby)