MURRAY — Brent Ottley drives a truck that gathers produce from the Green Urban Lunch Box farm and a bunch of unused backyard gardens across the Salt Lake valley, then delivers it to seniors and others in need of freshly picked food.
On Thursday, the recipients were cancer patients, and proper nutrition — particularly from fruits and vegetables — is key to treatment.
"There are definitely phases of treatment where nutrition plays different roles — there are moments you just want them to eat anything," said Elisa Soulier, oncology LiVe Well program manager at Intermountain Medical Center. "Then there are moments where they are merely surviving, where we emphasize a plant-based diet, one that contains all the antioxidants and healing properties they need to prevent complications of treatment and recurrence of the disease or other types of cancer."
The majority of cancer patients, Soulier said, "are highly motivated" to comply with the dietary recommendations, as their lives are often on the line.
"With a cancer diagnosis, their life feels completely out of control," she said. "Nutrition is one piece they can control and contribute to their own well-being and quality of life, which is key to recovery."
"It's really nice to have fresh food available," said Julie Seal, who is recovering from breast cancer after finding a "fairly large" lump in her breast earlier this year. Seal endured a mastectomy and 16 weeks of chemotherapy and is now in her second week of radiation.
"I'm tired, but I'm feeling pretty good," she said. "It's a terrible thing, but I am going to survive. I feel lucky for that."
Seal picked a couple bright green cucumbers and red tomatoes, among other things, to take home to her family.
Upon learning of her diagnosis, Seal, 67, said she immediately consumed more protein, per her doctor's orders, to increase her strength going into rigorous cancer treatment.
Proper nutrition can help build a person's strength, but also prevents the loss of healthy body tissue, helps to fight off infection, cope with treatment and heal more quickly, according to American Cancer Society nutrition guidelines.
"Your body needs a healthy diet to function at its best. This is even more important when you have cancer," the guidelines state. Side effects that arise throughout various cancers and different treatment strategies can also be handled with proper nutrition.
Soulier said many patients have taken freshly picked grapes from the produce stand at the treatment center and put them in the freezer to combat sores that form in their mouths and throats because of rigorous treatment.
Other common cancer-related side effects that might affect a patient's nutrition levels include a loss of appetite, changes in taste and smell, nausea and vomiting, weight loss and muscle wasting, diarrhea and/or constipation. These and others make eating the right things even more important, Soulier said.
Through grants and donations, the Green Urban Lunch Box coordinates the planting and harvesting of plots all over Salt Lake City, some of them unused by property owners. It harvested, collected and dispensed some 80,000 pounds of produce last year, including at the Intermountain Medical Center's Cancer Education Center.
"It's incredibly rewarding," Ottley, a former acupuncturist and passionate cook, said. He believes the key to many health problems people face is access to and consumption of more nutritious foods, which is why he volunteers with the nonprofit urban farming outfit.
He said the people who get the freshly picked fruits and vegetables don't pay for them, and are "so very grateful."
Cancer treatment can be costly for patients, leading to what Soulier called "financial toxicity," which can further cripple them in battling their disease.
"Many of them have to decide whether to pay their rent, buy groceries, or pay for their medications," she said. "This effort (of bringing fresh produce to them) is to lessen that burden."