Growing Food and Harvesting Hope for Cancer Survivors
By Kelsey Pohlman
Outreach and Engagement Communications Intern
When cancer rears its ugly head and strikes close to home, the physical and mental health impacts can be devastating. Enter Dr. Colleen Spees, assistant professor and member of Ohio State's Comprehensive Cancer Center, whose team is channeling hope and empowerment to cancer survivors through their community-based cancer research.
Spees' brother was diagnosed with, and eventually succumbed to, cancer when she was just 12-years-old; that was the defining moment when she began to hate cancer. Her ultimate goal to combat it, however, came to fruition when her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007.
"I don't recall a time when cancer wasn't a part of my life," Spees explained. "Our family attended more funerals than we did weddings."
After this second bout of cancer struck, Spees found out her entire family was affected by an autosomal dominant gene mutation known as Li-Fraumeni syndrome (LFS). After she tested negative for the mutation, she decided to return to OSU, with Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) support and under the mentorship of Dr. Steven Clinton, to study how modifiable lifestyle behaviors impact cancer outcomes. That's where food comes in.
Hope Begins to Grow
The Garden of Hope is a complimentary community garden for cancer survivors and their primary caregivers supported by JamesCare for Life and Ohio State. In 2016, over 400 survivors and their caregivers harvested produce. This is also the location of Spees' living laboratory where her most recent project, Growing Hope, provided a theory-driven and evidence-based intervention for cancer survivors.
Since 2013, Spees has conducted studies at the Garden of Hope to evaluate how dietary patterns affect cancer survivors and vulnerable populations. "Ninety to 95 percent of cancers are linked to environmental factors, of which diet and obesity account for up to 55 percent," Spees explained. Her studies not only focus on whole food consumption, but on multiple lifestyle patterns including physical activity, stress, and behaviors. In multiple studies, compared to baseline, survivors completing the intervention showed significant improvements in quality of life, Healthy Eating Index scores, and inflammatory and metabolic biomarkers of health.
Spees' work is supported financially by many different organizations, including the American Cancer Society, OSU Food Innovation Center, and National Cattlemen's Beef Association on behalf of The Beef Checkoff. Most recently, Spees was awarded a 5-year, nearly $1 million USDA grant to assess the impact of a garden-based obesity prevention program for low-resource children and their families in Central Ohio.
Garden Babies in Bloom
Not only are community partners a large part of the mix, but many students are also involved as volunteers and research assistants in these studies. Two such volunteers, who Dr. Spees endearingly refers to as her "garden babies," are medical dietetics students Hannah Solomon and Jeff Laubert.
Solomon's role includes supporting the survivors and introducing them to the garden. She educates survivors on the Garden of Hope guidelines, safe food handling and encourages them to fill their red garden bag to the brim with the fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are in season and ready to harvest.
"Even though I'm not a morning person, this has been a really great, worthwhile experience and Dr. Spees is fantastic," Solomon enthused. "Dietetics was different than what I thought it would be, but I was passionate about getting into the program because of her."
Laubert started volunteering in the Garden of Hope before his freshman year at Ohio State, but his experience has been similar: he walks around with survivors to not only help them gather produce, but just converse about the daily tasks of life.
"The garden is amazing and people are always happy there," Laubert stated. "It's a way for them to escape and other students are able to be there for them. It's a strong community that promotes healthy eating, positive lifestyles, and a cancer-free world."
While Spees' garden babies may differ in their world views and experience, Solomon will receive her master's in Medical Dietetics in May 2018, and Laubert just finished his second year of the undergraduate coordinated Medical Dietetics program. Yet they all contribute one important thing to the cancer survivors that can't always be found in the food: hope. And that hope will continue to grow long past 2017.
"I am thrilled to expand our intervention to underserved populations," Spees said.
"Cancer is cruel, and it doesn't care about the impact it has on entire families," Laubert said. "The garden is an oasis for these survivors, so anything we can do to empower those struggling with cancer is amazing."