If you’d told me ten years ago if I’d be a leader in the world of culinary medical initiatives, collaborating on programs with Columbia University, backed by data and studies funded by the NIH, I would have asked you what you were smoking. And yet, that is what happened.
I was fully paid up member of the glamorous world of fashion. I started out as a painter, and while at Art school, I’d made clothes, both for myself and for friends. This morphed into a career in fashion after an editor at British Vogue, spotted one of my jackets at a party and introduced me into the London fashion scene. A year later, I was scouted for a job in Paris, and I moved there intending to only stay six months. I stayed twelve years. I worked for some of the top names of the time, including the couturier Hubert de Givenchy. I then took jobs in Italy and the Far East. In 1985, I was given the opportunity to move to NYC where I became a design consultant for industry giants like Calvin Klein, J. Crew, Saks, and Barneys.
My fashion career allowed me to indulge in two personal passions: food and travel. I come from a family of foodies and world travelers. Dad was a master baker, and on Mom’s side, all Italians, both my grandfather and uncle were chefs. I first traveled abroad at age eight and began cooking at twelve, learning Italian specialties from my mom’s side of the family and sturdy British classics from my dad’s. Wherever I traveled as an adult, I would steep myself in the local cuisines and these new flavors would wind up in my own cooking.
During these years, the darkness of AIDS affected many friends in the fashion community. So many died. I cooked and cared for a designer friend during the last six months of his life. This guy was amazing. He lived until he simply couldn’t be himself anymore, and then was gone. In the process, he taught me not to be afraid. The experience changed me. I didn’t realize how much until years later into my own cancer journey.
I was first diagnosed with cancer after a routine OB/GYN check up in Fall 2001. It had completely taken over my right kidney. I was so sure I was going to die I started to plan my funeral. I was literally making myself crazy. Then one day about a week before my surgery, I had what I call my ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ experience: I was in my kitchen, and as I looked down at my feet, I realized that at that very moment, I wasn’t dying, in fact I was actually OK. I took a deep breath and made a pact with myself: until my doctors told me it was the end game, I was OK. I made the decision to stay present, and not think about things I couldn’t control and drive myself mad. I felt a huge weight lift off me. Like my friend, I was going to live, and enjoy it, until I died. I have never looked back since although there were times later on in my journey when I was tempted.
I was extremely lucky with my kidney cancer. I had surgery to remove the offending organ and life went back to the normal round of work and travel, interrupted by the addition of biannual CAT scans. 3 ½ years later it was a different story. My second diagnosis was an unrelated triple negative breast cancer that required surgery, chemo and radiation. I’d just finished a big project for a client, and doubted I would have the energy to give the 110% needed to start something new; chemo meant I couldn’t travel and that I would be bald, not ideal in that business. It was spring, so I decided to take a hiatus from work and take the time to deal with my treatment. This decision changed my life. Taking that step back from my work helped me to see what was happening around me.
Although I’m not what you’d call a ‘joiner’, I knew needed to be with people who were in the same cancer boat. I understood that I couldn’t expect my friends to understand what I was going through or burden my husband who had his own feelings to deal with as he sat with me through my chemo and helped me get through what was happening to me. I joined a support group at Gilda’s NYC and quickly felt at home. It was a relief to laugh and to cry with others going through similar cancer experiences, and to indulge in the gallows humor that we all enjoyed so much but that would have horrified my friends and family. The friends I made at Gilda’s have become part of my life, although sadly I have had to let go of those who the disease eventually took. We all had, and have, in common a love of life, regardless of what it brings.
As I became immersed in the world of hospitals and cancer treatment, I began to understand how my cooking skills were helping me to cope with my side effects in ways my fellow travelers in cancer could not. I was able to adjust to taste changes, adapt my food to how I was feeling at any given moment. Listening one day to a friend from Gilda’s describe her problems with how her food tasted, I realized that although the hospital staff were telling her what to do to alleviate her symptoms, they couldn’t tell her how. That’s when I knew I could offer practical help. My love of good food had helped me deal with my own treatment side effects, and my experience as a caregiver to my friend with AIDS had taught me the importance of nourishment and the sheer comfort good food could bring during illness. I started to offer advice, recipes and then free classes.
When my treatment finally ended, I was torn about going back into fashion. Immersing myself in the cancer experience had given me a very different perspective on my life. Nonetheless, the phone was ringing, so I took a meeting with a client to talk about a new fashion project. As I sat listening to the talk of color and trends, I realized that my heart was no longer in it. I didn’t want to get back into endless discussions about a shade of blue or hem lengths. I wanted to go back to the people in the cancer suite who needed help to cook and care for themselves. I didn’t take the job. In 2007, Cook For Your Life was born.