“Cook for Your Life: Delicious, Nourishing Recipes for Before, During, and After Cancer Treatment” is written by Ann Ogden Gaffney, two-time cancer survivor. A 2016 James Beard Award nominee and 2016 Books For A Better Life Award winner, Cook for Your Life is a uniquely organized cookbook for those whose lives are touched by cancer.
Coming from a family of foodies, Ann soon discovered how her cooking skills enabled her to deal with treatment effects but also understood how other patients and families could benefit from them. She began to offer advice, recipes, and free classes to fellow patients.
“Cooking from scratch is the first step towards healthy eating, but without the tools to make it easy to do, people can feel overwhelmed by the task. We provide the tools to make it simple.”
Ann, how did a routine OB/GYN check up in the Fall of 2001 change your life and cause you to think of planning your funeral?
In October 2001, I was having an annual sonogram to look at my ovaries when the technician saw that my right kidney looked abnormal. After an all too familiar story of insurance snafus a month later, the CT scan ordered by my oncology urologist showed that the kidney was completely consumed by a tumor. He decided not to do a biopsy and to operate as soon as he could, which was in December 4 2001 – he wanted me to enjoy Thanksgiving!
This gave me plenty of time to think about what was happening and to become consumed by fear. I was sure I was going to die, and started to put my affairs in order and even think about my funeral, until one day, standing in my kitchen I had an epiphany: I was making myself crazy worrying about a future I couldn’t know. I looked down at my feet and realized that at that moment I was OK, good even. I made a pact with myself not to worry or think about dying unless my doctors told me that I was terminal.
15 years and a second cancer later, the pact still holds and they still haven’t told me. And if fear ever presents itself I still check my feet to see how I am at that moment. Staying in the present is all.
That first diagnosis was the beginning of an awareness that change was coming, but because I simply had surgery albeit with a long recovery, with no chemo, once I was well it was back to business as usual, intercontinental traveling, working etc. It only was after my second diagnosis that I had to stop work. Triple Negative Breast Cancer requires aggressive treatment of surgery, chemo and radiation and during chemo I couldn’t travel, nor was I prepared to work when I felt exhausted or ill from it, so I decided to put everything on hold to focus on my treatment and recovery. It was stepping back from fashion for almost a year to look after myself that changed my life and allowed me to see another way. I was ready to make changes.
How did your friends at Gilda’s Club and others very close to you raise awareness of the importance of nourishment and good food as they went through treatment?
I’m not a big joiner but I loved Gilda’s. I met some great people there all dealing with problems to do with the different cancers they had, having good days and bad. I loved the way we could talk and laugh about what was happening to us, something difficult to do with most friends and family members. I also loved the way we’d talk about a trip or a movie instead of cancer. Cancer doesn’t have to define everything.
During these meetings, I heard friends talk about how they were having problems with food and taste, problems I was having too, but was able to deal with because I like to play in the kitchen, or that the nutritionist had told them to eat a healthier diet, with more vegetables, but they didn’t know how or where to start.
This gave me an ‘aha’ moment. So many people don’t cook anymore. I realized that being given nutrition advice is worthless without practical instruction on how to get it onto your plate. I started to share tips with the group about things to try to deal with taste, or easy recipes to include more veg into their diets.
Another cancer buddy who I talked food with introduced me to a breast cancer patient navigator at St. Luke’s Hospital and with her I organized my first 101 healthy cooking class. Seeing the joy these ladies got not just from cooking but the pleasure in finding they could do it was overwhelming. I was hooked.
In 2007, you launched your nonprofit organization Cook for Life. Can you please explain the importance of its programs and the collaboration you have with the NIH and other organizations such as the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health?
Our mission is to teach healthy cooking to people touched by cancer.
Cook for your Life is not about food as medicine, or food to cure.
We teach people how to prepare the healthy comforting foods that cancer patients and indeed all of us enjoy. We provide the community with ideas and recipes that can turn anything from a restrictive clinical diet to basic healthy eating nutrition guidelines into delicious easy meals.
Cooking from scratch is the first step towards healthy eating, but without the tools to make it easy to do, people can feel overwhelmed by the task. We provide the tools to make it simple not just at our in person classes, which have a limited reach, 9000 served at last count, but increasingly through our website which allows us a much wider reach. To date we has served some 3 million people online, from all over the country and abroad too. By the end of this year, to increase scalability all of our teaching operations will be from our website, in English and in Spanish.
Early on in the life of CFYL I realized that the Spanish speaking cancer communities in New York needed a culturally tailored approach to help them improve their diet by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. Working with native Spanish speaking nutritionists and chefs I devised a free three-part program that would ease participants into making changes by adapting traditional dishes using healthier food choices, and gradually introduce unfamiliar foods into their repertoire using familiar flavors, allowing them to experiment on our dime. We also researched the areas they lived in to make sure that the foods we introduced them too were easily available and affordable.
In 2009 a pilot for this program was funded by Aetna, and I was approached by researchers at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health about CFYL participating in a randomized NIH funded R21 study based on my Spanish program to measure if it increased fruit and vegetable intake long and short term. We received funding in 2010. CFYL’s methods were shown to work. The results have been published in several journals. We are currently working together with Columbia again on a larger 5 year study that also examines the viability of e-interventions.
Your cookbook, Cook For Your Life, is a 2016 James Beard Award Finalist and 2016 Books for a Better Life Award Winner. What do you account for its success and why is it so important for all stages of cancer treatment and recovery?
I think it’s because of two things:
Firstly it’s very intuitive, human. I drew on my own experience of treatment. Rather than by meal, the book’s chapters are laid out by how patients feel, by what they may need at any given time. For example, “Simple” for easy meals with few ingredients, perfect for a time strapped caregiver or a fatigued patient; “Soothing”, the ‘chicken soup’ chapter with all the bland comforting dishes in one place; “Safe” for those on a neutropenic diet, which can make caregivers very anxious. And so on through “Spicy”, “Sweet” and “Scrumptious” and of course “Staples” for basics to get started!
Secondly it’s all about the food, just food and good eating for cancer patients yes, but also their families. Cancer can be isolating and it’s important that where possible people eat (the same food) together. It’s good to look at too, beautifully styled and photographed. I wanted the photos to tempt the reader into eating. Too many cancer cookbooks are sickly or medical looking. After all this is first and foremost a cookbook not a medical textbook! I want those who buy it to use it when they are well again, not just when they’re sick.
What does a Healthy Plate look like to you?
Lots and lots of veggies, at least 30%-40% of the plate or meal, + 20% fruits. Veggies should always be the #1, then the rest split between whole grains and other starches, and of course a protein. About 30% of overall calories can come from fats like olive oil. I prefer to think of this format as a day’s worth of food rather than a plate, think oatmeal and fruit for breakfast with yogurt, salad or veggie soup for lunch, and Grilled chicken or fish with some veggies and a little starch for dinner.
Ann, what is next for you? Another book, broadening your community-wide support of healthy eating or something new?
Another book, yes, I’m sketching one out now, but I currently have a huge focus on broadening our reach and our teaching capabilities and offerings on the Cook For Your Life website, strengthening our online presence.