The Founder of CFYL talks about cancer and healthy cooking
What inspired you to start Cook For Your Life?
The idea for the website grew rather organically out of my experience of going through chemo. When I was feeling good, I would usually cook and make things--simple things like soups, stews and easy stuff that could be heated up on the bad days. I met a lot of people who were in chemo during the same time and I started to realize I was very lucky because I knew how to cook. A lot of people I encountered didn’t know how to boil an egg, or hadn’t cooked in 10 years, and it left them with very few choices -- ordering in or going to the diner downstairs, and not feeling good. With their changes in tastes they were finding it difficult to eat.
I began to swap recipes with a couple of chemo friends and we’d talk about what was working for us, taste wise and energy wise. One friend said, “Ann, you’re so good at this. You should do something with your knowledge.” She introduced me to a patient navigator at one of the NY hospitals, and that’s how CFYL got started in 2007.
Initially, we worked with one of the cooking schools in New York, and I would collaborate with the chefs to create menus that were appropriate for the class. The first time that we did this I lucked out. The chef I was working with was Peter Berley, who has written a couple of really good cookbooks. He and I had a lot in common because he’d nursed his mother through cancer and nursed friends through AIDS, as had I.
From that point, CFYL really grew quickly. I met people from Cancer Care and started to work with them to organize free cooking classes. Then I met an oncology nutritionist at Beth Israel Hospital and we did a series of classes there too. CFYL was on its way.
What has been your journey with cancer?
A routine ob-gyn sonogram in 2001 found a huge tumor on my right kidney. I had had no symptoms. They removed the kidney and luckily for me all the margins were clear. I am one lucky woman because it was caught just before it could metastasize. I’m now a 10-year survivor of kidney cancer.
Then four years later, in 2005, I was diagnosed with an unrelated breast cancer. I had surgery, chemotherapy and then radiation. During chemotherapy there are certain things you’re told are going to happen, like losing your hair, but though you can be forewarned, no one can ever really prepare you for that.
For me, acceptance is the key, as opposed to being angry or being in a “Why me?” mode. That’s an unanswerable question. What makes more sense is, this has happened and I’m living with it.
The other thing is welcoming the transformation. I’m as vain as the next woman, but the moment I lost my hair I stopped worrying about the changes that come with getting old. I had to confront this other person, this other way of looking at things, at myself. The slate was wiped clean. It was very liberating.
Is the website designed to be a support network as well as a recipe reference?
Yes. When I first started we found that people came to the cooking classes and found support in unexpected ways. They would end up talking about whatever had happened to them, about their cancer, but it was in a different kind of environment, the kind you get cooking dinner at Thanksgiving with family or a bunch of friends; you’re chopping and chatting in the kitchen and the side effect of it is the feeling of community. The website offers us a platform to reach so many more people than in a few classes, but with the same communal effect.
Of course, it’s also about offering information. When dealing with cancer, it’s hard to know what to believe, and what information to use or to discard. CFYL uses material that is completely uncontroversial, and we don’t have an agenda. When people come to the site they’re not being told, “This is not good and this is good.” If you like a recipe great. If you don't like it, try something else. It’s not your fault that you got sick, but you can help yourself by making small, incremental changes to eat better.
And you emphasize the cooking process as much as the healthy eating?
I'm not crazy about giving demonstrations, because people are not directly involved. Cooking has become a spectator sport, thanks to all the food shows on TV. When people are confronted with cooking sometimes it’s very easy for them to think, “No, it’s too hard for me to do it.” But actually it’s incredibly therapeutic. Just working, doing results-oriented manual work is very therapeutic. Cooking also offers something concrete at the end that can be used immediately—a meal.
What do you mean when you say simple, healthy food?
There’s an aura around healthy food that implies giving something up, a kind of deprivation. Most people think of dieting as losing pounds. But it’s not--it’s about changes in lifestyle. Our point of view is that if you choose to cook, you are taking the very first step to eating more healthfully. If you microwave a frozen entree you may or may not think about what’s in it, there’s no real connection with the food. But when you start to cook for yourself, you think about what you’re actually eating. Through teaching cooking, we’re giving people back control over what they’re putting into their bodies. We want them also to realize that healthy doesn’t mean deprivation or tasteless food. Healthy food can be rich and lush. Whole-wheat pasta with chicken meatballs and veggies, a big green salad, and a homemade fruit sorbet is a healthy, delicious meal.
Should people check with their doctors before consulting this site?
Part of the problem with food and cancer is that everyone has an opinion about it, doctors included. So educating yourself is important. But have a conversation with your oncologist if you’re going through chemotherapy to see if there’s anything you should avoid around the time of your infusion. My own doctor would tell me not to do certain things in the 36-hour bracket around my chemo infusion.
Many oncologists discourage their patients from taking any type of supplements during chemotherapy because they’re not sure how these may interact with the chemo drugs being infused. Some doctors will even advise their chemo patients not to eat antioxidant foods during treatment in case they inhibit the drugs’ effectiveness. So if you are in treatment, before making any big changes, always talk to your oncologist.