Research Shows Benefits of Gardening for Cancer Patients

Man planting tomato seedling

Researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Alabama recently presented data detailing how garden-based interventions can provide significant health benefits to cancer survivors.

In Seeds of Hope, Session 310 at the 2018 Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo, Dr. Colleen Spees and Dr. Wendy Demark-Wahnefried described novel gardening programs designed to improve health and quality of life for cancer survivors.

According to experts, gardening may help cancer patients cope with a difficult diagnosis and maintain health after cancer for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Connection with others facing similar health challenges

  • Increases in physical activity

  • Improvements in dietary quality

  • A sense of belonging

  • Time spent outdoors

For all of these reasons, gardening — especially with friends, family or in a formal program for cancer survivors — may be an excellent way to manage the challenges of a mesothelioma diagnosis, as long as patients practice safe gardening habits.

If gardening isn’t your thing, there are other options to help you gain the same benefits without getting your hands dirty.

What Gardening Can Do for Mesothelioma Survivors

The Growing Hope pilot study at Ohio State enrolled 35 cancer survivors into a gardening program.

The program consisted of:

  • Group education about improving health behaviors and one-on-one remote health coaching

  • Weekly harvesting at a large research garden

  • Cooking demonstrations focused on local, seasonal foods

  • Access to a web portal with recipes, harvest guides and safe food handling information

Compared with eating habits prior to joining the program, those who participated were significantly closer to reaching goals on eating more vegetables and fruit and eating fewer refined grains and less fat and empty calories.

The cancer survivors also improved cholesterol and blood-lipid levels, were more physically active, had improved quality of life and reduced levels of inflammation in the body, as measured by blood markers.

The program improved spiritual and psychological well-being and decreased fatigue among the participants.

Harvest for Health — the other gardening program highlighted in the research session — brought the gardens to cancer survivors. Master gardeners were paired with cancer survivors and helped them get started.

For this University of Alabama pilot project, the participants received portable garden boxes, soil, seeds and tools so they could grow food on their own. Larger patient cohorts have participated in follow-up programs based on the initial trial.

Participants in the pilot and later studies improved their functional status, increased fruit and vegetable intake, improved physical activity levels, and enhanced sense of worth compared with patients on a wait list for the program.

If You Don’t Love Digging in the Dirt

Gardening appears to be an excellent way to help people with a history of cancer function more effectively — physically and emotionally.

It may do this by improving self-efficacy, providing support and modeling healthy behaviors.

According to cancer experts, activities that provide these or similar supports also may help cancer survivors thrive after a diagnosis.

Seek out an activity that encourages you to move your body more, feel better mentally and emotionally and connect with others who are facing similar health challenges.

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Oncology Medical Writer

Suzanne Dixon is a registered dietitian, epidemiologist and experienced medical writer. She has volunteered with the National Cancer Policy Forum, Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, American Institute for Cancer Research, American Society for Clinical Oncology, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The New York Times and Time Magazine also have reviewed her cancer patient resources.

7 Cited Article Sources

The sources on all content featured in The Mesothelioma Center at include medical and scientific studies, peer-reviewed studies and other research documents from reputable organizations.

  1. Spees, C.K. and Demark-Wahnefried, W. (2018, October 22). Session 310. Seeds of Hope: Garden-Based Interventions Improve Health Outcomes for Cancer Survivors.
    Retrieved from:
  2. Spees, C.K. et al. (2016, July 1). Feasibility, Preliminary Efficacy, and Lessons Learned From a Garden-Based Lifestyle Intervention for Cancer Survivors.
    Retrieved from:
  3. Spees, C.K. et al. (2015, March). Health Behaviors and Perceptions of Cancer Survivors Harvesting at an Urban Garden.
    Retrieved from:
  4. Braun, A. et al. (2018, January 31). Tele-motivational interviewing for cancer survivors: feasibility, preliminary efficacy, and lessons learned.
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  5. Blair, C.K. et al. (2013, February 26). Harvest for health gardening intervention feasibility study in cancer survivors.
    Retrieved from:
  6. Bail, J.R. et al. (2018, January 22). A home-based mentored vegetable gardening intervention demonstrates feasibility and improvements in physical activity and performance among breast cancer survivors.
    Retrieved from:
  7. Demark-Wahnefried, W. et al. (2018, January 2). Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial of a Home Vegetable Gardening Intervention among Older Cancer Survivors Shows Feasibility, Satisfaction, and Promise in Improving Vegetable and Fruit Consumption, Reassurance of Worth, and the Trajectory of Central Adiposity. Retrieved from:

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