Elaine Euwer Photo by Alan Geho of Ralphoto Studio

When Elaine Euwer was being treated for stage IIB breast cancer in 2007, she was too exhausted to tend to her carefully maintained gardens. In addition, her chemotherapy regimen weakened the avid gardener’s immune system, which meant bacteria in soil and mulch could increase her chances of developing a life-threatening infection. Her eight gardens began to show signs of neglect.

While Euwer was regaining her strength after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, friends and gardeners maintained her two‑and‑a‑half acre property, watering plants, pulling weeds and pruning her boxwood hedge. “It was so wonderful,” says Euwer, a 59‑year‑old professional landscape designer who was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and finished treatment in 2007. “For a gardener, there's nothing worse than seeing your plants die.”

Dig Right In

Plant flower and vegetable gardens for breast cancer patients through Hope in Bloom in Dedham, Mass.

Volunteer with Helping Hands in the Garden in Columbus, Ohio.

Two years after completing treatment, Euwer wanted to ensure that other people with cancer would have thriving blossoms and vegetable gardens while undergoing treatment. So she started Helping Hands in the Garden, an organization whose volunteers weed, mulch and prune cancer patients’ gardens. At each service event, seven to 10 volunteers usually bring their pruners, trowels and gloves to work for about three hours. Based in Columbus, Ohio, Helping Hands also supplies tools, mulch, containers and planting materials for clients. In the past five years, the organization has provided tender loving care to the gardens of about 65 cancer patients in central Ohio.

Before You Send Flowers

Try these alternatives if a cancer patient can't receive flowers.

Chemotherapy can lower white blood cell counts, weakening a patient’s immune system and increasing the chances of infection. For this reason, the bacteria in live plants and flowers can be risky. Always check if it’s OK for your loved one to receive live flowers or plants.

As an alternative, consider dropping by once a week to mow the lawn and work in the garden of a person undergoing treatment. For a larger-scale effort, you can organize a volunteer day by seeing if a local college’s landscape design program might want to provide materials and volunteers. You can also install a window box with your loved one’s favorite flowers.

Volunteers do more than nurture neglected gardens—they also sow seeds of support. It’s important “for the client to see the volunteers laughing, smiling and talking,” says Euwer, who has had no evidence of disease since her initial treatment. She especially enjoys watching the reactions of cancer patients and their family members. “[One patient’s] husband came out to thank us, and he couldn’t even speak because he was crying so much,” Euwer recalls. “His wife later sent us a bouquet of flowers—zinnias and cosmos—from her garden.” 

Do you know an extraordinary person who’s giving his or her time to the cancer cause? Email Volunteer@CancerTodayMag.org​. We may feature the person in a future issue.​