Weimer helps cancer patients focus on nutrition through farmers’ market
(Editor’s note: A complete version of this article, as it ran in the University of Delaware’s UDaily website, can be found by clicking here.)
NEWARK, Del. — 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 the University of Delaware’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.” said Alisha Rovner, assistant professor in the Behavioral Health and Nutrition Department within the College of Health Sciences,
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.”
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,” registered dietitian Tiffany 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.