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Harvesting for health

Gardening showing better outcomes for childhood cancer survivors

In this garden, there is no cancer. There is no medulloblastoma or acute lymphoblastic leukemia. There’s no talk of radiation or transplants or sickness or other terrible things.

In this garden, there are just rows and rows of happiness. Huge, yellow sunflowers stretch toward the bright blue sky. Plump, juicy tomatoes hang off the vine, ready to be picked.

Kids like 11-year-old Cailea Williams run back and forth from plant to plant, picking a pepper here. A beet over there. She holds them triumphantly in the air like trophies.

“She is a survivor,” said her mom, Laura Williams.

Cailea’s now in remission after two bouts with brain cancer. During her treatments, she would spend weeks at a time in the hospital, with most of her nutrition coming through an IV.

Today, her weight is coming back. But because of the intense chemotherapy, her tastes have changed. “Things she had liked before she just won’t touch now,” her mom said. “So we’re going to focus on more nutrition.”

Cailea’s part of a research study run by Dr. Colleen Spees, an assistant professor and cancer researcher with The Ohio State University’s College of Medicine. Spees has several research gardens located at Waterman Farm, Ohio State’s working farm that includes acres and acres of crops just steps from the hustle and bustle of a city setting.

The research gardens are an extension of The Garden of Hope, a program started in 2012 by JamesCare for Life in collaboration with Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. This unique program supports cancer survivors by allowing them to harvest their own fresh produce and discover how healthful dietary patterns can assist in cancer recovery.

Cailea Williams
11-year-old Cailea Williams, a cancer survivor, makes a project as part of her experience with the research garden.

Biology benefiting cancer survivors

Spees says the program was a success from the start — survivors reported improvements in their physical and mental health. As a researcher, though, Spees wanted to know more. She wanted hard proof that cancer survivors were actually improving their health.

“A lot of people say how great gardening is. But we’re trying to prove it with biology. Does it impact health outcomes? In fact, we’re showing that it does.”

So in 2013, Spees, in collaboration with Steve Clinton, set up their own research space at the farm. They recruited cancer survivors and had them harvest produce and learn about the benefits of healthful eating and lifestyle behaviors. Spees and her fellow researchers conducted surveys with the survivors, took blood samples and studied their behaviors. The research showed improvements in the survivors’ quality of life, dietary and physical activity patterns, and health-related biomarkers like cholesterol.

“It was pretty remarkable,” Spees said. “What they were telling us — we were now proving.”

The next year they tried the same study with another group — overweight and obese cancer survivors. They refined their intervention and taught them some new ways to prepare the food. Once again, the results were astounding. Researchers found significant reductions in body composition and cardiometabolic risk factors.

Colleen Spees
Dr. Colleen Spees talks with pediatric cancer survivors and their parents about the importance of a plant-based diet.

Adapting for pediatric patients

This year, in partnership with Cindy Gerhardt from Nationwide Children’s Hospital, researchers piloted the garden-based intervention survivors of childhood cancer. The kids engaged in and learned about physical activity and healthful eating, created art projects with fruits and veggies, and even got to harvest their own produce. Along the way, researchers collected data points and assessed biomarkers in the kids.

“It’s been a learning experience,” said mom Misty Farrell, whose daughter, Mika, is in remission after being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was just 5 years old. “During treatment, we want to give them food that’s going to stay down and going to put weight on them. This program is going to help us get the right foods in her in hopes of keeping her healthy.” 

Spees says the early results are promising. The kids are exercising more, and their dietary patterns are improving. She plans to continue her research linking primarily plant-based diets with better health outcomes in cancer survivors.

“It’s been quite a fabulous journey,” said Spees, who was inspired to get into cancer research after losing her brother to the disease. “It’s the most meaningful work in the world.”

Garden of hope
9-year-old Mika Senften, a cancer survivor, walks through the research garden at Ohio State’s Waterman Farm.
Garden of hope
Cancer survivors like Dominic Clarke harvest produce from the garden.
Garden of hope
Aaliyah Erwin and other participants harvest produce and then take it home to prepare.
Garden of hope
13-year-old cancer survivor Grant Fischer works in the garden at Waterman Farm.