Food Is Love

Food Is Love

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Food Is Love

Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is.

Isak Dinesen

Gasping for breath, as though a vacuum had suddenly sucked the air from the room, I heard the doctor tell my sister, “Your margins were not clear” from the lumpectomy they had performed earlier that week. The doctor wanted to cut more. “I feel the lymph glands may be involved, and the cancer cells in the lump are a fast-growing variety of breast cancer.”

My sister Mary (called Meemee), her husband and I went into the waiting room at the doctor’s office to schedule the return surgery. I was fighting to keep back the tears, not wanting to add to the misery already in the room. Sweeping the two of them into a spontaneous group hug, we rocked together in the waiting room while the nurses and staff looked on in sympathy and some embarrassment. My stomach clenched into a completely new and unexpected knot. My perfect sister—the one who was always strong and capable, the one I’d always turned to for my own comfort and support, the one who was never sick or dejected—was suddenly badly hurt. Cancer! Life-threatening, terrifying cancer! Not my sister! Through no fault of her own, she was really sick. My thoughts were jumbled. What can I do? I have to do something. I have to make her well! She can’t be sick, and she certainly can’t die! I have to do something. It became a mantra of sorts—my internal litany: Do something, do something to heal Meemee!

So I got to work. Ever since I was allowed in the kitchen as a child, I’ve shown my love for the people I care about through cooking. My signature cookies, the many meals I’ve prepared through the years, are the stuff of legend in our family. It’s my role in our very close family, and one I don’t take lightly. So, faced with the awesome task I’d set myself, I did research into the effects of food on healing, particularly healing from the effects of chemotherapy and radiation on the body. I learned about the cancer-fighting properties in phytochemicals, substances found in fruits and vegetables that work in a variety of ways to build the immune system and destroy carcinogens in our bodies. The ten most phyto-chemical-rich foods known are cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, beans (especially soybeans), berries and cherries, onions and garlic, carotenoid-rich vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes, fish, tomatoes, mushrooms, all nuts and seeds (especially flax seeds), and green tea. I spent long hours investigating recipes that featured these super foods but would also prove easy on a chemo- and radiation-damaged constitution.

My goal was to fill my sister’s freezer with a big variety of healthy, microwavable meals and treats to tempt her during the coming ordeal of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The recipes I’d chosen included butternut squash and apple soup, roasted carrot and onion soup, and an African chicken with peanut butter and sweet potatoes. Meemee happily perched on the kitchen bar stool, reminded me of a baby bird as she willingly opened her mouth to be fed tastes of the various dishes I made for her approval.

Soon, all the ingredients had merged and disappeared into the many dishes I’d prepared. The freezer was neatly stacked with identical little microwave containers. I’d even made special Popsicles for the really bad days, having read they help the nausea and mouth problems. I flew home across the Pacific, feeling strong and capable, like I’d made a difference, hoping that the next months would be easy for my sister.

Halfway through the chemo treatments, The months I’ve been gone have not been easy. My sister’s hair was gone, and she was battling some really horrible skin and body reactions to the chemo. I cooked some more—it was still the only thing I knew to do. My sister was so brave; she didn’t complain even when we knew she was fighting the dizziness and scary pain. The side-effects of chemo are random and insidious and I hated what they were doing to her. I hated that I couldn’t make the pain and weirdness go away. I cooked some more.

Finally, the ordeal was over. Nearly all the bad side effects we were warned of had occurred, but the cancer was gone, completely gone! All the food I made for my sister was gone now, too. Cooked with love, eaten with love, I can’t believe it made a difference, and I’m just so happy she’s all right. Now, I understand that the cancer may come back, but I’m sure in my heart that it won’t. Every day Meemee is looking more like herself. Her hair has grown back; her body is recovering its shape; she’s never looked more beautiful. She’s also never been happier. There’s nothing like almost losing your life to learn to appreciate each day.

Through her experience, I, too, am living every day with more joy and meaning. Our whole family has finally let loose the collective breaths we’ve held for the past year. Every shared event is more appreciated now, as we realize how lucky we are to be together and relatively well. And I’m cooking with even more passion and commitment nowadays, convinced that healthy food will help keep my family cancer-free. There is one ingredient that can’t be measured: love.

Below is a recipe that really made a difference for Meemee during the worst days after chemotherapy. The fruit and tofu provide both phytochemicals and much-needed protein and liquids, while the cool Popsicle soothed her sore mouth and settled her stomach.

Chemo Popsicles

Fresh-squeezed orange juice, one 8-ounce glass Frozen mangoes, ¼ package, or 1 cup frozen berries ¼ square tofu, medium firmness
One banana
You can add passionfruit juice or other fruit juices to taste.

Put all ingredients into a blender. Blend to liquefy. Add more juice if it’s too thick—it should be the thickness of a juice smoothie. Pour blended mixture into Tupperware or plastic Popsicle molds and freeze.

Barbara Curtis

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