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The Story of the Stomachless Chef

Gastric Cancer Survivor Hans Rueffert

by Kaylene Chadwell

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Hans Rueffert

Renowned chef Hans Rueffert’s culinary roots run deep. When he was only four years old, his parents bought the Woodbridge Inn, a hotel and restaurant nestled in historic downtown Jasper, GA. Hans grew up working in the restaurant’s kitchen alongside his German chef father, washing dishes, shucking oysters, preparing salads, and generally loathing the family business. It wasn’t until Hans, at 18 years old, learned how to cook that he fell in love with the culi­nary arts.

“I had spent my childhood thinking that I hated the restaurant business,” Hans recalls in an inter­view with Coping magazine. “Then one day I realized that I actually loved it. I just hadn’t been involved in the right area of it yet.”

Hans’ penchant for cooking grew as he honed his skills, and he even­tually took over his father’s post as head chef of the Woodbridge Inn. In 2005, the fine-dining aficionado got the chance to travel to New York and show off his skills on the first season of Food Network’s culinary competition The Next Food Network Star. Hans’ cooking chops carried him all the way to the finale, where he came in third place – not too shabby for a self-proclaimed small-town Georgia boy in the Big Apple.

However, the elation he felt from progressing so far in the nationally broadcast competition was short lived. Two weeks after the show’s finale, Hans got the worst news a foodie could pos­sibly hear: He had stomach cancer.

There I was, during the scariest time of my life, and the one thing that always gave me comfort had turned into my enemy.”

“I thought I was having a heart attack,” Hans says, explaining the event that led up to his diagnosis. “I dialed 911, and – long story short – they found a tumor at the intersection of my esoph­agus and stomach.”

Hans initially underwent surgery to remove half of his stomach and half of his esophagus, followed by six weeks of chemo and radiation. However, over the next six years, infections and other complications necessitated more than 11 surgeries that eventually left him with no stomach and a completely reworked digestive system. “Anytime I go for an X-ray, it’s fun to watch the technician’s eyes light up,” Hans says with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘Whoa, nothing in here is where it should be.’”

Joking aside, adjusting to life without a stomach was challeng­ing for Hans, particularly during chemotherapy. He experienced extreme nausea, and because he was physically unable to vomit, he had to deal with all the discomfort of retching without any of the relief. Moreover, taste alterations and appetite loss were a night­mare for the professional chef, even causing him to shed a sub­stantial amount of weight.

“Food had always been my security blanket,” Hans admits. “But there I was, during the scar­iest time of my life, and the one thing that always gave me com­fort had turned into my enemy.”

As he slowly regained his appetite and his taste buds regen­erated, Hans adopted a diet that accommodated his new, stomach­less life. “My diet is how a lot of people really should be eating,” he says. “It’s similar to a diabetic diet – low-carb, low-sugar, and high in plant-based protein.” As his diet evolved, so too did his recipes. The experience served as the inspira­tion for a cookbook, Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow.

“The ‘live like there’s no tomorrow’ motto is the banner under which cancer survivors thrive,” explains the acclaimed chef. “For me, it’s almost celebratory in that I want to end every day know­ing that I’ve had a good day. The same goes for every meal. I want to ‘eat like there’s no tomorrow.’ I want every meal to be something I’m proud of.”

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Hans is still running things down at the Woodbridge Inn, and he serves on the Board of Directors of the Gastric Cancer Foundation (GastricCancer.org). Whether it’s through his cookbook or in-person cooking classes, Hans spreads his love of the culinary arts by teaching others how to prepare meals that are not only healthy but also delicious. You can keep up with Hans at twitter.com/HansCooks.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2014.