As some of you may know, I started Jeanette’s Healthy Living as a place to record and share foods I was cooking for friends with cancer as well as meals I was preparing for my family. In fact, the Anticancer Fireworks Black Bean Salsa featured at the top of this post was something I made at the beginning of this journey. Over time, the recipes on my blog have evolved to reflect changes in my family’s lifestyle. As my father-in-law’s Parkinson’s disease progressed, I had to learn how to cook nutrient dense soft foods for him. And, when my youngest son was diagnosed with numerous food allergies last year, I had to get up to speed on cooking allergy-free foods.
Recently, I have been trying to figure out how I can share my experiences so that others can learn to cook healthy foods for loved ones with cancer, food allergies, or other illnesses that affect what they can eat. I believe in the concept of food as medicine – that by eating a diet rich in whole foods, we can build up our immune system to help fight cancer and other illnesses. Although there are many factors that we cannot control, food is one we can.
I’ve cooked for friends with breast cancer, thyroid cancer, stomach cancer and colon cancer. And when I say friends, I say that in a different light than what many people might think. You see, I really didn’t know any of these women very well when I first started cooking for them. In fact, several of them even refused to let me cook for them in the beginning. They didn’t understand why someone like me, who didn’t even know them, wanted to cook for them. But, I persisted and as I started cooking for them more and more, and developed a comfortable relationship with these women, they slowly let me into their lives, and we developed friendships on a different level. I have to say that these experiences have been some of the most fulfilling and rewarding in my life. Cooking for someone is probably one of the most intimate things you can do. There is something to be said about the care and love that goes into preparing food, whether it’s for your family, friend or neighbor.
Some skeptics might say that I am not qualified to teach others how to cook for cancer patients, kids with allergies, or people with dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) since I have neither a degree in the medical field, nor a culinary degree. In fact, I was told just that this past week when I asked a third party (not a friend) what they thought of the idea of me teaching cooking classes to cancer patients and their caregivers. She questioned my qualifications to teach others. After all, who was I – just a home cook who has cooked for people with cancer, just a mom who has cooked for her child with food allergies, just a daughter-in-law who cooked for her father-in-law who had Parkinson’s disease for eight years. Needless to say, I was extremely discouraged. It really frustrated me to think that I had this passion for cooking for people with cancer, but that I didn’t have the “credentials” to teach others what I had learned. It’s amazing how dreams can be shattered just by one comment.
So, I’ve been giving a lot of thought about whether or not I can do something with this passion of mine – teaching others what I’ve learned through my life experiences. I’ve thought about what qualifies someone to teach people to cook for cancer patients. Does a nutrition or dietetics degree necessarily mean you know how to cook for cancer patients? No. Does a culinary degree mean you know how to cook for cancer patients? No. Does practical experience cooking for cancer patients mean you know how to cook for cancer patients? I would argue YES! Now, I could go back and get a nutrition degree and/or a culinary degree, but would that really help me learn better how to cook for cancer patients? Maybe, or maybe not. And honestly, right now with three kids still at home, I would rather spend my limited free time actually cooking for cancer patients, than getting another degree just to have the credential on my resume. Not to compare myself to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg, but they seem to have done just fine without a degree.
I know there are people out there with a nutrition or dietician degree that might cringe at the thought of someone like me teaching others to cook for cancer patients, but I would argue that my practical “on-the-job” training has been invaluable in teaching me how to cook for cancer patients. I have learned what foods cancer patients can tolerate when they have mouth sores, or trouble chewing or swallowing, and how to modify recipes when their taste buds change as a result of chemotherapy. Of course, I might consult with an oncology nutritionist or dietician, and I would love to team up with one, but I believe my actual experience cooking for cancer patients is a skill that can only be learned by doing.
I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Rebecca Katz a few days after I was beat up over the head by the person who said I had no credentials to teach others to cook for cancer patients, for kids with food allergies, or for people with dysphagia (the condition of having trouble swallowing which my father-in-law had). Rebecca Katz is a nationally-recognized expert on the role of food in supporting health during cancer treatment, and the author of my favorite cancer cookbook, The Cancer-Fighting Cookbook. All I can say is that Rebecca Katz is as sweet and inspiring as her cookbooks (she is also the author of One Bite At A Time). I have stickies on so many recipes in her cookbook that I have made for my friends with cancer, all of which have received rave reviews. When I cook for friends with cancer, I always try to practice Rebecca Katz’s “power of yum” so foods I prepare not only taste good, but are visually appealing.
Just this past weekend, I met a woman with cancer, and I reached out to cook for her, and she graciously accepted my offer. It is moments like these that reaffirm what I am trying to do. Although I have no idea what path my life will lead to, I do know that I have a passion for cooking, not just for my family, but for people who have cancer. Food is medicine. I truly believe that.
I will continue to share recipes that I make for my family on Jeanette’s Healthy Living, but I will also be returning to my roots of how I began this journey by interspersing recipes featuring anticancer foods to help me continue the learning process and to share what I learn with all of you. This learning process might not provide me with a formal degree, but I believe this on-the-job training will be more valuable and practical than any classroom can provide. Thank you Rebecca Katz for your inspiration and for reminding me not to let anyone tell me that I can’t do what I’m passionate about.
Thanks also to my boys (I love you guys!) who, after I shared what Rebecca said to me, played this clip from the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, where Will Smith’s character tells his 5-year old son,
“Don’t let somebody tell you you can’t do something…you got a dream, you got to protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they want to tell you you can’t do it. You want something, go get it. Period.”