I am lucky.
The American Cancer Society predicts that 1,658,370 people will have been diagnosed with cancer in 2015. None of these diagnoses came to me or my family. Not one aunt with breast cancer; not one cousin with melanoma; no prostate scare in an uncle. My close circle of friends is generally healthy, cancer-free. We are lucky. We get to complain about annoying bosses and empty wallets – not about chemo or radiation drugs.
Rather than seeing cancer in my personal life, I encounter it in my professional life. I am a personal chef in Chicago, and my specialty is cooking for clients with specific dietary requests. This includes Celiac gluten-free, Crohn’s low-residue, kids with peanut allergies, and adults with high cholesterol. It also includes patients battling cancer. The side effects of radiation can include nausea and a pesky, consistent metallic taste in the mouth. Add to this a lack of energy and the emotional exhaustion that comes with confronting life’s fragility. It is vital to eat nourishing, sustaining food while your body is being exposed to intense toxic levels aimed at killing cancer cells. Using my skills in the kitchen, my purpose is to create appetizing flavors for someone who has lost her appetite. As a chef, this is what I do.
Yet, my knowledge of food’s power goes beyond the stove.
In the summer of 2011, I was hired as the Wellness Club Chef at Whole Food’s Market. Through this position, I received rigorous training and education, much of it centered around the link between diet and cancer. I earned a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University’s online school, a program designed by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. Together with Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Campbell’s research draws on the undeniable link between animal protein and cancer. In their book The China Study, they describe this link in two settings. In the highly-controlled science lab, they were able to turn on and off cancer-growing genes in mice, simply by adjusting the amount of casein in their diet. Casein is the main protein in cow’s milk. On a population scale, they tracked entire countries that were undergoing drastic jumps in cancer rates. Genetics couldn’t explain the spike, nor could fitness levels. The common denominating factors were diet and lifestyle. Specifically, it was a shift from a plant-based, whole-foods diet to a diet heavy in animal proteins and refined foods.
These doctors advocate plant-based eating as the ultimate medicine in preventing and ceasing cancer growth. In my role as chef, I was presented with the task of creating drool-worthy recipes using fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. I was restricted from oils, sugars, syrups, and salt – basically all of the “go-to” weapons in the chef’s “make it taste good” arsenal. This challenge became an opportunity to push my creativity, expand my culinary knowledge, and rethink the classic French techniques of butter-basting and fat-braising confit. This started an evolution that has pushed me to discover global flavors from Peru to Schezuan, to taste heirloom produce like scuppernongs and banana squash, and to hone techniques like oil-free sauté and broiling. This challenge of creating cancer-fighting foods has made me grow more as a chef than I could have imagined. Now I celebrate plants, with the diverse flavors they offer and their beautiful rainbow of colors.
My job as a chef is to make delicious food. Yet, I also have a duty to create food that is healthy. I want the people I feed to feel good, stay well, and have energetic lives, well into their 100’s.
My Battle Cry against cancer is not a scream.
It is the pop of quinoa as it toasts.
It is the sound of onions searing in a hot pan.
It is the “rrrrippp” that comes with stripping leaves of kale off the stalk.
These are my battle cries.
And I get to make them every day….
This post was inspired by Equinox gym's Cycle for Survival Battle Cry call. I've taught fitness classes for Equinox for almost 10 years, and each year the company rallies behind this cause is a big way. To learn more about Cycle for Survival and to submit your own Battle Cry, check out the website : Cycle for Survival