Cook for Your Life

Cook for Your Life

When you have cancer, cooking isn’t just about eating healthy.

by Ann Ogden Gaffney

I love to cook, and I live to eat. Two cancer diagnoses couldn’t put a dent in that, but they did get me thinking about food.

When you have cancer, cooking isn’t just about healthy eating; it is also about feelings, both physical and mental. Cancer treatment protocols have their ups and downs, bringing good days and bad, and although each day is different, a rhythm starts to build that allows you to predict when you’re going to feel your worst or be at your best. Good food can help you get through all of it. It can soothe, or it can excite. It can certainly make you feel human again.

During the often arduous cancer journey, cooking also gives you control. When cancer forced me to hand my body over to my medical team, I found that cooking for myself and my family gave me a positive path back into life after doctors: At least I could control the food I put into my body. Many of the people who come to my Cook for Your Life classes feel the same way. And cooking can bring a rush of instant gratification at a time when it feels as if you’re always waiting for something, whether for test results or CAT scan results, or your doctor, or simply for the grueling months of treatment to be over. Cooking a meal that gives you healthy deliciousness in minutes equals control over an important part of your life.

There are more than 15 million of us in the United States either living with cancer or having survived it. I want to help us all to eat better, stay well, fight cancer with our forks, and to cook for our lives.

Cancer survivors are frequently told what to eat for nutrition, but not shown how to prepare it. To fill this gap, I decided to write my own cookbook, Cook for Your Life, with the recipes labeled according to the health considerations cancer survivors must take into account when preparing meals. Here are a few tips from my book on
what to cook for certain cancer-related nutrition concerns.

Cancer survivors are frequently told what to eat for nutrition, but not shown how to prepare it.

For Fatigue

Fatigue is, sadly, a necessary evil of many treatment protocols. While there is no “magic” food to combat these feelings of exhaustion, try recipes that offer easy, comforting options for when you may be too tired to prepare a complex meal. Although sugary treats will pick you up temporarily, excess amounts of refined carbohydrates can increase feelings of lethargy once the initial burst of energy wears off, so the foods in this category should be lower in starches.

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Easy to Swallow

A side effect of some chemo drugs is painful mouth sores and cankers. People undergoing radiation to the head or neck will also have to deal with severe mouth or throat soreness, and many find it difficult to eat at all. I would advise anyone in this situation to consult a registered dietitian. Recommended foods are those that are soft and smooth and low in acid, to minimize irritation. Food should be eaten or sipped in frequent small portions and served warm instead of piping hot. To make foods easier to swallow, add smooth, fatty foods like avocado to, say, a smoothie, and even unsalted butter to a soup.

For Nausea

Go for easy-on-the stomach, bland-tasting, inoffensive foods and beverages: think bananas, white rice, applesauce, and plain toast.

Bland Diet

A bland diet is made up of foods that are soft, not very spicy, and low in fat and fiber. This diet may be used to ease ulcers, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and gas, or may be recommended after stomach or intestinal surgery. It may also be advisable to follow a moderately bland diet leading up to or following chemotherapy infusions, particularly if you’ve experienced digestive side effects in the past.

When you have cancer, cooking isn’t just about healthy eating; it is also about feelings, both physical and mental.

High Fiber

A high-fiber diet is recommended to promote regular bowel habits, manage weight, and encourage general health. This diet may be particularly important for someone who is prone to constipation or is experiencing irregularity as a result of treatment. Twenty-five to thirty-five grams of fiber per day is thought to be ideal, but increase the fiber in your diet slowly; if you’re not used to it, it can cause intestinal discomfort, aka gas. As you add more dietary fiber, make sure to increase your fluid intake, too. It will help you avoid constipation.

Neutropenic Diet

Some medical centers recommend this diet (otherwise known as “low microbial” or “low bacteria”) if neutrophil (a type of white blood cell) levels get too low to adequately protect from infection. When white blood cells are low, microbes your body typically deals with easily could send you to the ER. A neutropenic diet is low in foods that are prone to containing bacteria, helping to keep you well. Neutropenic diet restrictions vary depending on white blood cell counts, so make sure you talk to your doctor for specifics. Usually, raw foods, sushi, and food from buffets, salad bars, and delis are off limits. Some medical centers also add probiotics (like yogurt) to this list, so it’s always best to ask. These no-nos may make you feel as if you can’t eat anything, but this isn’t so. There is still a lot of tasty, good food out there for you. (See sidebar for a delicious, neutropenic diet-friendly summer sauté.)

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What I Cooked While on a Neutropenic Diet

During treatment, my oncologist put me on an antimicrobial diet, which meant that I could not eat any raw or undercooked foods. This diet can feel like horrid deprivation. My doctor told me that raw fruits and berries, crunchy veggies, and salads were banned. Sushi, rare meat, and fish also were off the menu, as well as certain cheeses. I was also warned to be wary of commercially prepared foods, so I couldn’t rely on takeout from delis, or food from hot tables and buffets.

The restrictions sink in as soon as you realize just how much the forbidden foods were part your daily meals. I had the particular misery of being put on this diet in the summertime, so I was denied that delicious first taste of local strawberries, or the joy of biting into a juicy, ripe peach. My favorite salad greens were out of bounds, too. I wandered like a bald ghost through my favorite greenmarket, knowing that I couldn’t indulge. But then I focused on what I could do to have all the forbidden things I loved: I cooked them.

I made delicious chilled salads of lightly steamed summer vegetables or roasted root vegetables dressed in tangy vinaigrettes. I enjoyed wilted greens and herbs, drizzled with a little olive oil, at room temperature. I made compotes from soft summer fruits, which I chilled and ate on their own or froze into granitas or gelatos. No deprivation there.
The moral of this story? If you can’t make lemons into lemonade, make cherries into compote.

Ann Ogden Gaffney is the founder of Cook for Your Life, a cancer-fighting nutritional program that offers free hands-on cooking classes in person and online to cancer survivors. Ann is the author of the cookbook Cook for Your Life, from which this article is adapted. She is also a two-time cancer survivor.

Consult a registered dietitian about your nutritional needs, and get more recipes and cooking tips from Ann at

Reprinted by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Ann Ogden Gaffney, 2015.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2016.