Cancer-Fighting Cruciferous Vegetables

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Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, and bok choy contain phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals, and fiber which are important to your health. These are smart choices to add to your anti-cancer diet.

I live in New York City, and this October has been unseasonably warm until today, when finally I began to feel an autumnal chill in the air. My thoughts immediately started turning towards warm, cozy comfort foods and in particular to soup in all its wonderful forms. October is breast cancer awareness month, and as a breast cancer survivor I guess I should be thinking pink, not soup. Although not a cure, a good soup can feel like a lifesaver to someone going through the miseries of treatment, as I know first hand.

Be it chunky or smooth, soup warms us when we feel cold, soothes us when we feel ill and above all nourishes us. I can honestly say homemade soups kept me alive and well during my breast cancer treatment, when the docs were unceremoniously zapping me and my cancer with all the slash, poison and burn options at their disposal to make sure the cancer wasn’t coming back The chemo didn’t always leave me feeling like eating, and many foods tasted odd and unappetizing, but on my good days I would always rustle up a simple soup for the freezer to sip on to keep me fed and nourished on the down days when not much else could. It was my grandma’s minestrone.

Making My Grandmother’s Soup

This soup was one of the first things I ever learned to cook. It was known as Jungle Soup to us grandkids, and was made with beans and vegetables she and granddad grew in their garden. It was one of the few ways we’d all eat vegetables with genuine gusto, and we were thrilled when she made it for us. When I left home for Art College, my mother, convinced that I’d starve, made sure that I left the house with the Jungle Soup cooking lesson thoroughly learned. She was a wise woman. She knew that the soup had everything in it that I’d need to feed me, and for just pennies too since my student budget wasn’t exactly abundant.

Thanks to mum, I found out making a good soup is not difficult. My grandma’s soup contained the foundation that I have built most of my cooking knowledge on. It got me started. Although the common perception of soup making is of long simmering, I realized that if you have everything ready, it didn’t take long to prep and cook, and I didn’t start out with knife skills I have now.

Building Flavor

Another thing I learned, although I didn’t know it at the time, was how to build a flavor base. I was just doing what my mum had shown me to do. Its greater application was lost on me until later. It’s the way you start the soup, sautéing garlic in olive oil until it just colors, which flavors the oil. You then add diced carrots, onions, celery, potato and a bay leaf, plus a sprinkling of salt and patiently cook, stirring until the onion gets transparent. This creates even more flavor in the oil. At this point the cabbage goes in.


Cabbage is a cancer fighting cruciferous green though Grandma didn’t know this about it. She just liked eating it. Once it has wilted, in goes the stock or water and you cook the whole thing for about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are fork tender. The beans and pasta go in for 10 minutes right at the end. Then as you serve add some fresh basil, or pesto if you have it for some bright herb flavor at the very end. Easy and yummy.

Comfort, Nourishment, and Survivorship

Every basic I needed to know was in this soup. But most of all I learned about being patient throughout the entire process, being mindful. You ‘can’t hurry love’ as the song goes, nor getting onions to the right stage. And the best thing, as both a hungry student and a fatigued cancer patient, is that I got the instant gratification of a result I could eat right away, in this case a savory, delicious soup that comforts, warms and nourishes. And so can you.

Grandma's Minestrone Soup

Photo Credit: Joe Gaffney

If you don’t cook, I encourage you to start like I did with this easy soup. It’s full of good things that you put into it, it freezes well, and is packed with all the nutrients the vegetables that have given up into the broth during cooking. Round that out with protein from the beans, and you’ll have created a deliciously nutritious, cheap meal to keep you alive and kicking in good times and bad, in healthy survivorship or in treatment. That’s quite an achievement. So pin on your pink ribbon, and join me in celebrating life this breast cancer awareness month by making yourself this simple bowl of homemade soup.


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 carrots, cut into ½-inch dice
  • 1 stalk celery, cut into ½-inch slices
  • 3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into large ½-inch diced
  • 1 bay leaf, broken
  • ½ head of Savoy cabbage, cored and shredded
  • 1 (14-ounce) can chopped Italian plum tomatoes
  • 3 sprigs flat leaf parsley
  • 6 cups of stock or water, or to taste
  • 1 (14-ounce) can of low sodium kidney beans, rinsed and drained (See Ann’s Tips)
  • 2 ounces of whole wheat pasta (elbows, ziti or penne)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 3 tablespoons of roughly chopped basil leaves (In the winter, see Ann’s Tips)


  1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add garlic and pancetta, if using, and fry until turning to a light gold.
  2. Add onions, carrots, celery, potatoes, and bay leaf. Cover and turn down the heat to medium low to sweat the vegetables until they begin to soften. Stir occasionally.
  3. When the vegetables are soft, mix in the cabbage (See note). Cover and sweat for another 5 minutes or until the cabbage begins to soften.
  4. Remove lid and turn the heat up to medium high. Mix in the tomatoes and cook until the tomato takes on an orangey color (if using paste, take care it doesn’t burn). Add the parsley and stock or water. Bring to boil, cover, then turn down to simmer. Cook for 25 minutes, then add the beans. If home cooked add the liquid too. Bring to a simmer again and add the pasta. Adjust seasoning.
  5. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes or until the pasta is done. Discard bay leaf and parsley. Add in the chopped basil and grind a little black pepper on top. Serve with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of good olive oil.

Ann’s Tips and Tricks

Beans: It’s OK to use cannellini, pinto or navy beans instead of kidney beans. Whatever you use, always drain and rinse canned beans before using, even for soups. If you use home cooked beans like our Basic White Beans you don’t need to drain or rinse them. The broth is low sodium and adds to the flavor. If you use fresh beans, add them with the cabbage in step 3. If you have the rind of a piece of Parmesan cheese handy, throw it into the soup at step 5 for extra flavor. In the winter, fresh basil can be hard to find or expensive. Substitute 1 tablespoon of jar pesto. Also you can use ¼ cup tomato paste instead of canned tomatoes. If you are having oral problems such as cankers or post radiation dryness, leave out the pasta and puree this delicious soup for easier swallowing. Just whizz a couple of cupfuls in a blender with a little extra stock or some water. Let the soup cool somewhat before eating.

More on Cruciferous Vegetables

Cruciferous Vegetables Activate our Immune System

Anti-Inflammatory Food Choices – Cruciferous Vegetables


What’s on your #BucketList? Join #CancerRoadTrip for a healing adventure and a chance to win a trip of your own.

Cancer Road Trip with Pat Wetzel



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