How nutrition aids cancer recovery
Photos by Ashley Barnas September 02, 2022
Nutrition major helps cancer patients focus on nutrition through farmers market during ChristianaCare internship
Bonnie Chambers was diagnosed with breast cancer in October of 2021 at the age of 41. The cancer was identified in her annual mammogram.
“If I had waited until I felt something, the cancer would have metastasized,” she said. “Once I’m done with my treatment, I will be such an advocate for screening mammograms. This screening saved my life.”
Looking back, Chambers is grateful. But it’s been a long road. She suffered severe side effects from chemotherapy, including nausea, abdominal pain, fatigue, numbness and nerve pain, vertigo, and an overall lack of interest in eating. On Aug. 4, Chambers had just had reconstructive surgery and wasn’t healing the way she had expected.
“I had gone back to work as a nurse practitioner at ChristianaCare,” she said. “I was tired, just feeling down and out, worried about starting radiation, and worried about my children.”
Then, the kindness of a stranger, who turned out to be University of Delaware student Robert Weimer, altered her mindset.
“He handed me this bag of fruits and vegetables outside the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and Research Institute at ChristianaCare,” Chambers said. “It almost brought tears to my eyes — just that moment where you needed a touch of kindness and positivity, it just helped me snap out of it.”
Each Thursday, Weimer hands out bags of fresh seasonal produce from UD’s Fresh to You student-run farm to cancer patients like Chambers as part of the Graham Cancer Center’s oncology farmers market. Weimer, a senior majoring in nutrition and medical sciences, spent his summer interning with ChristianaCare.
“The biggest benefit of the farmers market is that patients are getting basically a prescription in the form of a paper brown basket that’s provided from UD’s farm,” Weimer said. “When we tell them that it’s fresh and free, the bags run out in a matter of minutes.”
This summer, bags have contained beefsteak and cherry tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, Swiss chard, kale or romaine lettuce, cauliflower and herbs. Patients also receive recipe cards and tips on how to store produce for maximum freshness.
“Some love to cook, and with cancer, they’ve had to resort to a bland and boring diet due to taste and smell changes,” Weimer said. “So, something that’s often enjoyable like a chicken parm may give them nausea. But showing them that there’s other options and different recipes that help them get the amount of nutrients they need, lights them up.”
“Nutrition is a really important component of a lot of different types of medical care but particularly for oncology patients,” Rovner said. “This internship couldn’t be more perfect for him to bring in his nutrition knowledge and also to learn about the importance of proper nutrition in cancer patients.”
Weimer’s passion for nutrition and positive patient outcomes have made him an asset to ChristianaCare, where he worked directly with registered dietitian Tiffany Whary.
“His enthusiasm for nutrition is just contagious — and it’s not just contagious to me as a healthcare provider — but to the patients that he’s serving,” Whary said. “When he’s handing out that produce, he’s doing it with such enthusiasm because he knows he’s helping those patients.”
Chambers, who is primarily a vegetarian, said her trips to the farmers market have reignited her passion for food.
“We’ve used the vegetables to make some incredible dishes like a delicious vegetable quiche,” Chambers said. “Even when I was on chemo, I will tell you, I enjoyed eating that.”
A UD connection from the beginning
The idea for the farmers market was born several years ago, starting with a small rooftop box garden above one of ChristianaCare’s cancer suites.
“Here at ChristianaCare, we’re always trying to be innovative and determine ways that we can help our patients,” Whary said. “But every week, we didn’t have enough vegetables. The need was there.”
Whary sought to expand the farmers market and was inspired by her childhood to reach out to UD’s Fresh to You farm. Her father, Robert Carroll, is a retired plant pathology professor in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“The program is very close to my heart,” Whary said. “I grew up with a strong love of the farm and a strong connection to it due to my father’s profession; I grew up seeing the benefits of how fresh produce can help the community. Knowing that UD’s farm is in our backyard at ChristianaCare, I knew we could collaborate and bridge that gap.”
Now, UD farm manager Abby Reeves delivers a few hundred pounds of sustainably grown produce to the Graham Cancer Center weekly.
“My main focus has been on increasing the farm’s community involvement,” Reeves said. “I think contributing to the farmers market at ChristianaCare is a tremendous opportunity for us to give back. We have so much extra produce, so giving it to such a great cause is rewarding, and I know it goes to a section of the community who really needs it.”
With inflation causing some of the highest grocery prices in recent memory, the free produce has helped patients who often must decide between paying for medication and putting food on the table.
“Patients have told us that this initiative got them through their treatment, and they wouldn't have been able to have fresh produce had it not been for the farmers market,” Whary said. “Many have said that’s their groceries for the week. It’s one less thing they have to worry about.”
Whary stressed that adequate nutrition improves patient outcomes.
“We present nutrition as a way of helping patients get to the cancer survivorship side, and it engages them in the process,” Whary said. “Adequate nutrition assists patients in feeling better; it helps them keep up their strength and energy and maintain weight and their body’s source of nutrients.”
Chambers said she has seen a difference in her recovery from healthy eating.
“When your body is weak and under stress, it’s always reassuring to know that what you’re giving your body is going to help you get through this, and it’s not empty calories. It produces a different type of energy,” Chambers said.
A holistic approach
ChristianaCare’s oncology farmers market is about more than just providing fresh produce. It’s also about educating patients and considering all the issues that converge with a cancer diagnosis.
“From emotional stress and financial burdens to social and transportation issues, it’s about not just making sure patients get a bag, but also ensuring that they can carry it to their car,” Whary said. “It’s about looking at the patient overall and helping them on their cancer survivorship journey.”
Whary said she hopes Weimer has learned the importance of taking a holistic approach to patient care.
“No matter what piece of the healthcare puzzle you’re in, this experience has prepared him greatly to become a wonderful doctor and look at the whole picture for a patient,” Whary said.
From his internship, Weimer has learned that nutrition care, too often, goes unrecognized. In addition to his work at the farmers market, Weimer also administered malnutrition screening forms to patients that help inform nutrition intervention strategies.
“Cancer patients are so overwhelmed with all the medical aspects of their care that something as simple as eating can go unaddressed,” Weimer said. “When we ask them how they’ve been eating and managing their weight and whether they have energy, when I show them that they have options to eat and can still get enjoyment out of it, they express a great amount of joy and gratitude.”
That brings him joy too. Weimer aspires to be a physician and said nutrition-based interventions will always be a part of his practice.
“It’s such an easy, inexpensive lifestyle modification,” Weimer said. “I know there are patients who may not have the money to spend on medications and prescriptions, and a simple dietary change can have a profound effect on recovery.”
That mindset is exactly what Rovner wants to see in students.
“There’s very little nutrition taught in medical school,” Rovner said. “UD students who study nutrition and medical sciences enter medical school well-prepared and with a unique perspective.”
Rovner called this a phenomenal experiential learning opportunity for Weimer.
“Opportunities for students to get real-world experience outside the classroom are just so important,” Rovner said. “Robert having the opportunity to talk to patients and find out about their challenges and barriers and gain understanding is invaluable.”
Weimer added, it’s also been great to connect what he’s learned in the classroom at UD and apply it in a community setting.
“To see patients follow the dietary guidelines and see improvements in their health, it’s rewarding,” Weimer said. “Then, to see the science behind why and how it works, and then in real-life, provide the intervention and see positive results reinforces what I’m learning.”
Weimer’s UD education prepared him well for his summer internship and his future, Whary said.
“University of Delaware nutrition students’ knowledge base is beyond compare,” Whary said. “Robert came to us with an enthusiasm to learn — and it’s learning in the real world — not textbook learning. His education has helped him to see the overall picture and the great outcome that nutrition can have.”
Weimer’s enthusiasm is something Chambers will remember for decades.
“Robert is making a positive impact on people’s lives, and these are people who are down and out and needing that — their souls and their bodies need that,” Chambers said.