Three years ago, Gina DePalma, a James Beard award-winning pastry chef and cookbook author, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was 41.

Surgery and chemotherapy and a double prophylactic mastectomy followed. At this writing, she is undergoing a second round of chemo to treat a recurrence of the disease. To help herself deal with the treatment, and to spur healing, DePalma used what she knew best — cooking. Currently the pastry chef at Babbo in New York City, DePalma has started The Cowgirl Cure Foundation, a non-profit to raise awareness and money in the fight against cancer. 

How is it that food came to play such a central role in your life, and now in your life with cancer?

As an Italian,  I was raised with the mindset that food was as important as housecleaning or going to church. For Italians, and I think it’s true with most European cultures and other older cultures, quality is not to be second guessed. I learned at an early age the importance of quality food, and how to select it. I also learned that food doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it brings people together. And I think we often miss that point in America. Having cancer really makes you realize that. You start to value your family more. As a chef, I learned not to sweat it so much if food isn’t perfectly cooked or presented. What’s more important is that it’s nourishing, and also whom you’re eating it with. 

Has cancer changed your approach to food in other ways?

I don’t want to say cancer is a blessing. It’s really been a curse–it’s horrible, it’s terrifying, it’s put me through untold physical horror. But it does bring gifts, oddly enough.  At a time when a lot of glamour was coming into the restaurant business, I was almost mourning the loss of the honor and the humbleness of my profession. When cancer came along I was able to tune out all the “celebrity chef” trends and go back to the basics and cook. Cook for myself, cook because I’m bored, cook because I need inspiration, cook because it’s better than sitting and crying. Just as your priorities as a person realign, my priorities in cooking realigned. Still, I can’t say it was my passion. I get confused when people use that word. You know what my passion is? Not dying. That’s my passion.

What skills from cooking have you applied to your health challenge?

I’ve always believed that you get to decide how much of your soul and your spirit goes into your cooking, and I think the same thing applies to your fight in cancer. You have to be able to decide how you’re going to conduct your battle. I think cooking also makes you disciplined and strong and able to face adversity.

I learned to see the beauty in the simple things. I made a lot of jam when I was cooking and in chemo the first time around. For me, boiling fruit was maybe all I could deal with in a day. It was something I could do. You need tangibles when you have cancer. Everything is so big and scary. When you have something tangible that you made that may last on a shelf for a while, it can make you feel as if you’re going to be on the shelf for a while too.

Did chemotherapy change your own taste for foods?

I was told to expect a lot of changes, but my taste buds didn’t change that much. I lived with my mother when I went through chemo the first time, and she always cooked with a lot of flavor and I welcomed that. I definitely edged toward comforting foods, and it became more important to concentrate on whole grains and fresh vegetables. But that was in my culture even before I became a cook.

Even if your taste changes, the main thing is trying to purify your food sources, eating organic and educating yourself.  Unfortunately there’s a huge disconnect between my medical doctors and nutrition. But food is one of the things you turn to when you’re looking for answers. What I wound up taking away is that you have to have a well-balanced approach to cooking and eating when you are sick.

It sounds like cooking has been a huge part of coping and healing, both physically and psychologically.

Absolutely. I had a huge surgery and was in the hospital for about a month, and then when I came home I had nursing care because I was still so weak. I remember when I finally started to get strength back, one of the things I wanted to do was cook. My mother would see me  standing up and she’d get terrified. It took a long time for her to realize that being in the kitchent gave me something to be able to do. It’s about taking control of your life again. Maybe if I’d been an accountant I’d have wanted to start crunching numbers again, but I was a cook, and I wanted to get that part of me back. But for people who aren’t cooks professionally, we go back to that basic thing of nourishment. You can’t control a lot of things. You can’t control losing your hair; you can’t control the weakness and fatigue; you can’t control the neuropathy. But you can nourish yourself, and cooking is a really big step of empowerment.  Even the smallest act of making some soup. It’s just that small bit of,  “Today I can’t cure my cancer, but I can make this pot of soup and it can be healthy and good for me and I can eat it and feel like I did something.” I think that’s a real tangible.  In three years of  hell there have been few constants, but one has definitely been cooking.

Gina’s Very Good for You Muffins
With fresh fruit, oats, cinnamon, and nutmeg, this recipe by chef Gina DePalma makes for a delicious breakfast or healthy snack. 


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