When I was fighting breast cancer, I dropped below 100 pounds. At 5’6”, that is danger territory. Between nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, and just no appetite, my husband, the cook in our family since I went back to work after our second son was born, and my caregiver, did everything he could to entice me to eat. For most of the five months of chemo, my standard fare was Cream of Wheat, with water, not milk, boiled potatoes without even butter, Jell-O™, hummus with spears of fresh cucumber, popsicles and ginger ale. A couple of friends discovered I could eat ginger snaps, and kept me supplied. Late in the treatment cycle, I discovered I could eat Oreos, as long as they had no filling. My daughter-in-law picked up on a casual comment about it and my son and granddaughter sent me an entire box, from which the fillings had been removed.
I decided not to eat dairy, though I love milk, because I was told some people develop an allergy to dairy during chemo and I hoped if I avoided milk, cheese, ice cream, and yoghurt, I would not trigger an allergy. Whether that was why I can eat dairy now, I don’t know, but I can.
Though I never developed the mouth sores some are plagued with or the metallic taste others encounter, I could not eat anything spicy. And, I picked up a new habit before eating – thinking about whether it was appealing before I tried to eat anything. Meat was mentally overwhelming, and, even now, three years later, I eat only a very small serving of meat, about one-third the size I was used to, and cut it up into toddler-size bites, or eat meat that is ground or shredded. I once asked my forbearing husband if he would make me some of his delicious split-pea soup. My thinking went like this: “it’s nutritious, filling, smooth, warm and yummy. Should be perfect.” Before he even set a bowl down in front of me, I said, “I can’t eat it.” It’s still in the freezer to this day.
A week or so after chemotherapy ended, I got so hungry I started eating on a newborn’s schedule, every two hours, round-the-clock. For this, I started eating black bean salad and deviled eggs. They could be made ahead and I could serve them myself. Though I slowed down the number of meals, I continued to eat these two staples once or twice a day for more than a year.
My diet since treatments ended eventually moved closer to the foods I ate before cancer. But, where I used to eat fruit several times a week, now I eat raw fruit several times a day. Where vegetables were a daily side dish at dinner, now two or three, raw and cooked, are featured at lunch and dinner and, occasionally, for snacks. While I still treat myself with donuts when stressed, sugar, for the most part, is a treats-only addition, not part of my daily diet. Similarly, alcohol.
For his part, my husband is trying to introduce what we now know to be anti-inflammatory foods, along with herbs and spices that complement their cancer-fighting properties. Turmeric, with other curry spices, are now our favorite way to use left-over chicken.
Just like you wear seat belts, even though, for any given car trip, you are not likely to need them, you need to eat as though, for any given meal, you are fighting cancer with every bite you take. Especially, if you’ve had cancer and you’re trying to keep it from coming back.
And, that’s where this book comes in – “The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing, Big-Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery,” by Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson.
First, what it is not. This book is not a traditional cookbook in the sense that you can plan entire meals for a family from it. You cannot. It is, instead, an entire cookbook with recipes designed to tease finicky appetites with dishes that everyone else in the family can also eat. It is the only book I’ve seen that pays attention to the particular requirements of eating during chemotherapy. There are explanations for why any given herb or spice or food or drink was included and how, specifically, it is designed to fight cancer and how it eases symptoms of treatment.
This book is not, take this pill or sit for this infusion so we can kill your tumor. This book is, here are foods designed specifically to create an environment in your body that helps you fight the recurrence of cancer, or even that helps you stay healthy enough for the next infusion on time. My second infusion was delayed for a week after a trip to the emergency room for dehydration. And, one of my chemotherapy drugs was dropped half-way through the course because I’d lost so much weight.
The foods in this book are aimed at keeping that from happening. And, they’re delicious.
Let me list a few:
To reduce the chance of dehydration: Magic Mineral Broth, Chicken Magic Mineral Broth and Beef Bone Broth. These have the advantage of serving as a basis for soup as well as just for sipping. The mineral, or vegetable broth, naturally includes magnesium and potassium, the very minerals the hospital gives you in a saline drip if you get too dehydrated. The author suggests aiming for 20 sips, one at a time, throughout the day. Anyone who has not had the experience of throwing up the water you are drinking to take a pill designed to stop nausea, may not appreciate the power of sipping nutritious broth. I did eventually branch out from ginger ale to sage and sumac teas, by just pouring boiling hot water over fresh sage or spring sumac, then straining, as well as pot liquor, the water collard greens are cooked in, sometimes with salt pork or bacon added – all mild and satisfying.
To avoid dairy, the author suggests nut creams. They have the advantage of being easy to digest while adding protein to your diet. And, they’re easy to make. Cashew, almond and pistachio cream are the ones described here. Grind the nuts, then blend with and equal amount of water, add spices and fresh lemon or orange juice. Cashew cream, with nutmeg, for instance, is added as a garnish to blended smooth Carrot, Orange, and Fennel Soup. Almond milk and almond butter are the basis for a Chocolate Banana Smoothie. I just made the Strawberries with Mango Coconut Sabayon, except I made almond milk because I didn’t have coconut milk and some juice from a jar of maraschino cherries because I didn’t have agave nectar. Not only is it delicious, but, it keeps. So, every day I scoop out a couple of teaspoons and pour it over sliced, chopped strawberries. Delicious!
To avoid sugar, the author uses dried fruit, maple syrup, or agave nectar, but most recipes could drop even these sweet ingredients without losing their taste and appeal because the underlying foods are already mildly sweet – bananas, carrots, sweet potatoes, and coconut, for instance. Though I now make my smoothies with milk, I’ve recently started adding flax seeds by grinding them in the blender first, for a few seconds, then adding the banana, other fresh fruit, like blueberries or strawberries, and milk. Flax seeds are anti-inflammatory and though the science is still emerging, they may have an anti-tumor effect, if, like me, your breast cancer is estrogen positive.
One of the tricks the author uses to entice flagging appetites is high color contrast in her dishes. Several examples include Emerald Greens with Orange, Basil Broccoli, and Shredded Carrots and Beet Salad. The first recipe pairs swiss chard – which is already dark, leafy greens with bright red stems – and dried cranberries. The second adds red bell pepper or cherry tomatoes to broccoli. The third mixes shredded carrots and beets with a light orange juice, ginger and olive oil dressing. Although the author does not suggest it, steaming the vegetables lightly, before they’re dressed, will make a softer dish that might be easier to eat.
On the delicious vegetable front, the author finds many ways to insert extra nutrition and symptom-abating elements, while keeping dishes delicious. I can’t wait to try her Edamame Avocado Dip. Although during treatment I wouldn’t have been able to eat it with wasabi or garlic, she has also added digestion-aiding ginger and mint, which I likely would have been able to enjoy.
And, finally, the granitas. I’ve found watermelon and cantaloupe too watery for my usual smoothies. Here, they are served up as ices, or granitas. Dairy-free, they are designed to help keep you from getting dehydrated, a light treat whose sweetness comes from the natural fruit.
Every recipe in this book has been carefully designed to help cancer patients in treatment or recovering. Every ounce of nutrition and anti-cancer properties possible has been packed into yummy foods crafted to appeal to even the most reluctant appetite, if not today, then tomorrow.
I found I had to give myself permission to eat or not eat, as I was able, because I did not want to swear off some food forever because of an unpleasant situation, like I did with tapioca when I was 7 and my Mom told me I had to finish it before leaving the table. I can hold a food grudge. I still won’t eat tapioca.
Finally, the author includes a list of the ingredients she features with the properties that explain why she has built her recipes around them. Here are some examples:
- Allspice – digestion aid
- Anise – digestion aid and anti-inflammatory
- Apricots – anti-inflammatory, potassium source
- Basil – digestion aid, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antibacterial
- Beans and lentils – anti-inflammatory, may lower risk of breast cancer recurrence
- Brazil nuts – anti-inflammatory
- Cinnamon – appetite stimulant, digestion aid, anti-inflammatory
- Cranberries – anti-inflammatory, inhibits the growth of liver cancer cells
- Lemons – anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial
- Oranges – anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial
- Parsley – appetite stimulant, digestion aid, anti-inflammatory
- Turmeric – appetite stimulant, digestion aid, anti-inflammatory
Because of turmeric’s power, we now have curry often. I add flax seeds to my smoothies and try to concentrate on fresh and cooked fruits and vegetables as the mainstay to my diet. Weaning myself away from sugar has been a long process and stressors just keep leading me back to the donut shop. But, when it works, I’m surrounded by a feeling of well-being.
Of course, that might also be because I just got my third annual clean mammogram.
Thank you, Rebecca Katz, for this incredible cookbook and guide for how to stay healthy through food.