That step back took me away from my old life as a fashion designer and into an entirely new world…an advocate for home cooking and healthy eating for cancer patients, and a James Beard nominated cookbook author.
– Ann Ogden-Gaffney
I am a 2-time cancer survivor. Both experiences taught me something that has changed my life ever since.
Dodging the Bullet
My first cancer appeared to be all about dodging a bullet. I’d been diagnosed with kidney cancer due to pure luck. I’d been asymptomatic and it was a medical exam to look at my ovaries that found it. As much as I’d complained about them at the time, I never thought having fibroids would end up saving my life, but they surely did. The surgeon later told me that although the cancer was still encapsulated, it had pretty much taken over the entire kidney, and I was truly luck it had been found in time. My treatment involved removing my entire kidney, but not chemotherapy, and I felt blessed not to have to go through that. After I’d recovered from surgery, aside regular CAT scans, that was it. I was considered cured and went back to my designing life in fashion.
As I said at the start, it appeared to be about dodging a bullet, but there was something else. One of the things that I’d experienced this first time was gut-wrenching fear. On receiving the diagnosis, I’d been sure I was going to die, so sure, that I was actually planning my own funeral and going over my will. Then one day, in my kitchen, I had an epiphany: that if I continued to think this way I would drive myself completely crazy. I looked at my feet and realized that at that moment I was OK – diagnosed with cancer yes, but OK. I suddenly understood that I couldn’t know the future and to worry about it was futile, even destructive. I made a pact with myself that until the doctors told me I was dying I was OK, that I was going to keep on living until the day I died, literally. Some friends called this as denial, but I don’t agree. You have to move on through whatever is happening in your life. I found, and still find, that staying in the moment is the key whether in good times or when times are hard. It certainly helped me when 3 years later I received a second, mercifully unrelated diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer.
The First Step into the Rest of My Life
Triple negative breast cancer can be aggressive, and to deal with it I had to go through the entire gamut of cancer treatment, the slash, poison, and burn that is surgery, chemo and radiation. I’d just finished a huge design job for a client when this all happened, and had taken a meeting with a client to talk about another the week after my first chemo. I still had my hair at that point. She asked, as one does, “How are you Ann?” At that moment I realized for the first time that I wasn’t really OK, that I would need to take the time to take care of myself during what was to come. Although it wouldn’t be a great move financially I said no to the job. There was no way I could put work first anymore. That was huge for me. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the first step into the rest of my life.
That step back took me away from my old life as a fashion designer and into an entirely new world where I became a teacher and an advocate for home cooking and healthy eating for cancer patients, and a James Beard nominated cookbook author.
My “aha” Moment
I am a skilled home cook, and this new life started when I saw that the cancer patients and caretakers I met during treatment were having a hard time dealing with not just the side effects of treatment and the clinical diets that can come along with them, but also with the challenge of making the recommended healthy changes to their eating post-treatment. My ‘aha’ moment came when I understood what had caused this problem; most people no longer cook on a regular basis, and have little or no knowledge of basic foods in their natural state, let alone the cooking smarts to make them taste good. I decided to set up a non-profit to give free 101 healthy cooking classes to give cancer patients, survivors and caregivers the basic skills to make eating well easier.
I started to research into which foods were the healthiest for cancer patients, and immediately hit a barrage of conflicting information. Although almost everyone agreed that we should eat more leafy greens, and a colorful plate of diverse fruits and veggies and whole grains, I found sweeping claims about the potency of certain foods and even their ability to cure, articles on how sugar in any form causes cancer. Some sources appeared to lay blame on cancer patients themselves for their situation, they’d eaten meat or dairy, had consumed a too acidic diet, or too much gluten. Cancer is hard enough to go through without such blaming. I wanted Cook for Your Life and our classes to be a safe space based on trustworthy, proven information, not silver bullets.
Cook for Your Life
Since I am a cook, and not a nutritionist, I started to talk to oncology nutritionists about the best information resources. They directed me towards the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). The AICR conducts meta-analysis of large studies that involve thousands of people. This analysis results in the AICR recommendation guidelines, and reflects the potential cause and effect between certain foods and lifestyles and both cancer and cancer risk reduction in a way that smaller studies cannot do on their own. These guidelines are the touchstone for everything we do at Cook for Your Life.
The most important thing for me is that as well as being healthy, the food and recipes of Cook for Your Life be tempting and taste good, really good. Good to eat and good for you! Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I’d been a pretty strict vegetarian. I ate no dairy, no eggs and only occasionally would I eat fish. These days there’s no bad food in my book. I eat a flexitarian plant-based diet and buy the least processed, best quality food I can. These include all my former no-nos but in moderation. There are foods that I only eat very occasionally if at all: fried foods, red meats, sodas, added sugars and sweet desserts for sure fall into that category. That said on a hot summer’s day I’ll enjoy an ice cream, I just don’t keep any in my freezer. Variety is the Key Healthy eating is not about deprivation or giving things up, it’s about adding new foods and flavors so that the old foods lose their charm and a healthy diet can become a reality along with the better overall health that comes with it. After my own cancer diagnoses, I didn’t give up my healthy ways, I just became more flexible. One thing I have learned through Cook for Your Life is that for truly good nutrition, variety is key. That’s what the colorful plate is all about, and that’s what good food is all about. Happy eating!
Cook for Your Life Recipes…